Engineering master’s student improves process control of advanced power systems

Virginia Jimenez Through the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship Program, Virginia Jimenez used National Instruments LabView programming software to automate a high temperature and high pressure system for sensor testing. The MLEF program is administered by ORAU through its contract with the U.S. Department of Energy to manage the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. (Photo courtesy of Julia Wittkamper, MLEF)

From a young age, Virginia Jimenez has been interested in contributing to a healthy environment for our Earth. Now as a participant in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) Program, she got to do just that, by helping test novel sensors in environments similar to DOE’s fossil fuel power generating systems.

Jimenez was placed in the Advanced Sensor Development Laboratory (ASDL), which develops various types of sensors, at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, with her mentor Thomas D. Brown. The MLEF Program is administered by ORAU through its contract with the DOE to manage the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

“My project involved using the National Instruments LabView graphical programming software to fully automate gas distribution for a new high pressure and high temperature reactor system DOE has designed and built,” Jimenez explained. “These developments will allow for testing of novel ASDL sensors at pressures, temperatures and gas conditions representative of DOE’s Advanced Power Generation Systems, for example, coal and biomass gasification, advanced coal combustion, fuel cells and gas turbines.”

These systems are designed to improve fuel, thermal and electricity generating efficiencies as compared to many of the current fossil-fueled facilities in place throughout the U.S. While these systems are designed to improve the overall efficiencies, development of novel sensors have the potential to further increase the overall efficiency, by monitoring and controlling key parameters impacting gas concentrations, temperature and pressure. Further increases in efficiency could also be enhanced by NETL developed sensors being placed within typically non-accessible zones of these newly developing power generating systems which have high temperature, low or high pressure concentrated gaseous fuels and corrosive environments.

Jimenez’s automation of the gas distribution system would allow for unattended operations, while monitoring and controlling 10 Mass Flow Controllers, a part of the system which allows the flow of representative gases present during coal gasification and coal combustion. With full automation, the flow of gases through the Mass Flow Controllers can be released in different concentrations and at different times to test the validity of the developed ASDL sensors.

The gas distribution systems Jimenez automated is now being utilized again, to test other novel sensors under representative high pressure, high temperature and corrosive environments within the new reactor test systems at NETL.

While already well versed in LabView technology before coming to NETL, Jimenez was challenged to utilize her knowledge in different and diverse technical applications for her automated systems development.

“My Labview skills and engineering background gave me the necessary tools to understand what was happening in my project, and then while at ASDL, I was able to learn the rest of the information I needed during my fellowship. This made me feel as though I was a valuable contributor to the research, and I know now that I have the ability to always continue learning, no matter the subject.”

Jimenez is currently working towards a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. Last April, she passed her Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, which certifies her as an Engineer in Training. Passing the FE exam is one of the first steps towards becoming a professional engineer, which requires gaining professional engineering experience and passing another required examination. After becoming a certified professional engineer, Jimenez envisions herself working in the industry for a couple of years, then returning to school to earn her doctoral degree.

“Personally, the MLEF program has strengthened my confidence and made me realize how capable I am of doing things,” Jimenez said. “I know now that with the correct guidance I can make great achievements and contribute to a cause greater than myself. It was a great experience, and a program I would recommend to anyone.”