The pursuit of more efficient ways to produce and use energy is an objective of great interest. Efficiency can be defined as how closely the energy that is put into a process matches the energy present in the intended useful output of that process. Ideally, a process will convert all the input into a useful output. This is almost never the case as some amount of the input energy is lost and, as a result, the efficiency is somewhat lower than 100%. The most common form of loss in many energy-intensive processes is in the form of heat.
An interesting exception to heat loss is when the process involves burning fuel and the output is largely heat. Examples of this kind of process are boilers and rockets. Burning fuel is a chemical reaction in which molecules of the fuel are combining with molecules of the air. Inputs to the process are the fuel, air and energy to initiate the reaction. In a boiler, the fuel and air are mixed using combustion controls that regulate the amount of each input and the rate of the reaction.
Improving the efficiency of this kind of process can be accomplished in several ways. The greatest gains generally come from two advances. These are better measurements and better controls.
Improvements in Measurement
Technological progress has enabled both miniaturization of electronic circuitry and the ability to collect massive amounts of data. Software that can perform sophisticated analysis of the data, has also been developed. Combined, these improvements are making better data acquisition possible. By leveraging the resulting speed and accuracy of insight into the process, more timely and accurate control signals can be generated.
Improvements in Controls
Actuators, valves and compact control circuitry have benefitted from improved precision. Better design methods and extraordinarily accurate fabrication techniques produce high-quality final control elements. Variable speed drives have also contributed to precise manipulations of fuel and airflow rates.
Scientists and engineers continue to search for optimal techniques that allow for safe boiler operation and reductions in fuel costs for many industries. This important work will help improve air quality while extracting the maximum energy possible to keep factories humming and buildings warm.