Energy Endeavors Part II: Climbing around coal-fired plants and a day in the life of a drill bit

For Energy Endeavors Part I, click here.

On Thursday, the rains came down and the floods came up. There were some flooded roads between me and the Museum, but I was able to go around or just barrel on through. Understandably, not all the teachers were able to make it; some were trapped by flood waters while others had the added bonus of having no electricity.

We did eventually get on the road and on the way to the Coleto Creek Power Station, a coal-fired power plant outside of Victoria, Texas. It was pouring, but after a couple of hours we made it out into sunshine.

Energy Endeavor Part IIWe got to the plant right around lunch and as we ate, we listened to a presentation by Robert Stevens about the basics of coal-fired electricity.

A coal-fired plant works by burning coal to create steam, which is then used to turn a turbine. Coal-fired plants generate about 42 percent of all the electricity in the United States.  In Texas, coal makes up about 39 percent of our electricity. Unlike other states, the Texas electrical grid is its own. While we do have a few outside lines to other states, Texas could cut itself off from the rest of the country and still be electrically independent.

As you can probably imagine, a plant built to produce 600 megawatts is a huge undertaking. In front of the plant are train tracks that cart coal from Wyoming to be burned. The cars are made so that one of the ends can twist and the other is ridged. This is because they go into a building where the cars are locked in place and then turned upside down. The coal is taken by belt and piled into a coal field that sits atop a feeder. The feeder takes the coal in, crushes it, and sends it into the furnace. It all has to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, because we need the electricity it produces.

The teachers loved this place. We were able to climb all over it. We saw where the train cars were turned over, we saw the turbines, and we saw where the coal was injected into the furnace. The teachers were especially delighted to get bits of coal and ash to take back to their classrooms.

Friday there was thankfully no rain, and we went to see drill bits being made at Varel International. They make drill bits not only for the oil and gas industry, but for the mining industry as well. At their site in Houston, they take each drill bit from the design stage to completion.

When the company gets a custom order (and seismic data), they start by designing the drill bit on a computer.  They have to make it strong enough to go through the rock that’s expected to be there and have enough flow from the mud to make sure nothing breaks down.  After that, they run a simulation mold of the bit being carved out — this way they can check to see if there will be any problems before they start production.

Energy Endeavor Part IIDuring the production phase, they hollow out a graphite block, and put place holders in to create holes for the bits and tubes to make sure the mud will have a path to flow through. Then, the mold is filled with metal and put into a furnace.

After awhile — as much as two days in some cases — the drill bit is taken out of the furnace and is broken free from its graphite mold. The bits are welded into place and the bit goes through a number of cleaning processes, making sure the clumps of excess metal are removed. A bit is then added to the collar (the part that attaches to the pipe). The bit is taken away, painted the company colors of green and silver, put in its container and shipped out into the world.

Our final destination was the Chemistry Department at the University of St. Thomas. We got to see some of the students’ projects, such as one student’s small reactor, and hear about the programming at UST.

As you can see, it was a very fruitful week. We had some adventures (some unintended), saw some wonderful sites and met a lot of people who not only loved their jobs, but were eager to share that enthusiasm with a bunch of teachers. It’s a wide world of energy out there and, at least in Houston, you don’t have to go very far to experience it.