Wednesday, August 23, 2017 / Perth Australia / By Niekie Jooste
In this edition of "The WelderDestiny Compass":
Welding is by its very nature an energy hungry process. It takes a whole lot of energy to melt metals, but the problem does not stop there. The practicalities of welding also means that the efficiency associated with the actual melting process is relatively low.
A lot of energy is lost into heating the air / gasses around the weld, and also heating the base metal away from the weld zone. Given the drive towards a greener future, we need to ask ourselves how the welding industry will face the inevitable scrutiny regarding its environmental footprint.
There has so far been a long line of industries that have come under environmental scrutiny. We can think of the logging industry, mining, oil and gas, steel mills, transport and power generation to name a few. What steps can the welding industry take to get ahead of the curve? Today we start to look at this thorny problem. I am sure that we will need to return to this issue in the future again.
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Now let's get stuck into this week’s topics...
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has become the latest in a long line of leaders to promise that they will ban the petrol and diesel engine. In the case of France, the target date is set at 2040. That sounds far away, but 23 years passes much quicker than we think, and I believe that 2040 is the end date when the whole transformation must be complete. This means that there needs to be rather speedy plans made and implemented to have any hope of meeting that deadline. Other countries have even more ambitious timeframes for such a ban.
We can obviously debate how effective or desirable such a policy is, but let us leave that debate for another day. The important point I want to make is that these types of pressures will not pass the welding industry idly by. Not only do we also drive cars and trucks, but we also rely heavily on petrol and diesel powered generators for remote welding activities.
Not only will we need to fall in line with the whole petrol / diesel engine ban when it happens, but it is only a matter of time before some environmental types suddenly see the welding industry as their next "bad boy" target.
Now, we can approach the issue from the perspective of a victim being persecuted, or we can look for the opportunity in all this. And believe me, there is always an opportunity when change comes a knocking. Besides which, the new technologies that will need to be developed will be interesting in their own right, so that makes me excited if for no other reason.
Commercial battery powered portable welders are available on the market. I have not used one, but from what I can see, they are good for around 20 minutes of relatively light gauge stick welding. It sounds like a nice start, but it is not going to solve an industrial sized problem that professional welders are interested in.
To replace a field generator welder, we will need a lot more power in a reasonably portable format. Lithium ion (LION) batteries have come a long way, and they are getting to the point where they can be used for large scale energy storage. Despite getting to the point where they are widely used in electric cars, the problem is that their energy density is still too low to really provide a good portable welding solution. Recharging the LION batteries also take too long.
There are some other interesting technologies out there that look to me to be promising for our purposes. The technology I find most promising for the short to medium term is the "flow battery". There are a number of different flow battery systems, each with their own advantages and challenges. The main thing I like about the flow battery is that the energy is contained in liquid media that is pumped through the active part of the battery where the electricity is generated.
Theoretically we can use these systems like current generators where we could have "tanker trucks" with electrolytes that top up the generator and remove the spent fluid. The spent fluid can then be regenerated through a typical recharging operation. Typically these systems are currently being used with solar power collectors to do the recharging. They are gaining popularity in remote telecommunications installations where they are recharged with solar panels.
While these systems are not currently used in welding applications, I believe that they could be a decent go-to system for remote welding applications where generator welders are currently being used. If they are combined with a small portable solar farm, these systems could be really useful for "green welding" on pipelines in remote areas.
Other promising developments are new battery materials that can be re-charged in seconds rather than hours. Such batteries can then be used on a rapid replacement basis for remote welding applications, with the spent batteries being taken to a central base for recharging between shifts.
Battery technology is progressing quite fast, but we are all waiting for that "silver bullet" battery that has it all. High power density, quick charging and safe. While we wait, it is good to know that there are viable alternatives already out there.
I have to ask the question. Is wireless welding possible? There are currently wireless systems for recharging batteries, and even wireless electricity transmission. Fundamentally these systems work by generating power from electromagnetic waves or fields that are generated in a specific local area.
It is for instance possible to have lights and other low powered electrical devices powered through the establishment of electromagnetic fields within a room. At the moment the power output is quite low, and the distances over which the power can be "transmitted" is also rather low. We are talking in the order of meters for the systems with the greatest reach, and only millimetres for the systems with the lesser reach.
The issue is that these systems still need some kind of "receiver/generator" surface through which the electromagnetic field is translated back into electricity. The higher the power required, the bigger the surface.
In the case of the greater power output required for welding, such receiver surfaces will be so big, that it starts becoming a little pointless and counter productive. Just use a cable and power supply! Personally I am also rather concerned with working in an environment saturated with such high powered electromagnetic fields.
For now at least, I think that wireless welding is not a practical or safe option. But hey, we can dream.
Yours in welding
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