Metal Plating for the Power Generation Industry
For more than a century, Americans have relied on the grid system as their primary source of electrical power. An electrical grid is essentially a supply system that delivers to the end user, via high-power transmission lines, electricity generated in a power plant. However, the demand for alternative power sources has led many consumers to seek other ways to produce and receive their electricity, including nuclear, solar and wind power.
In a basic electricity grid setup, a power-generating station produces the electricity at low voltages. The station then delivers the electricity to a step-up transformer that increases the voltage to minimize power loss during transmission. Transmission lines carry the electricity to a substation containing a step-down transformer, which reduces the voltage to make it suitable for use in homes, businesses and other facilities.
The Evolution of the Power Grid
Thomas Edison designed the nation's first electrical grid system in 1882: The Pearl Street station in New York City. By the 1930s, government-regulated electric utilities were the norm in the US. The government essentially controlled all aspects of the power grid, including the power generation plants, transmission lines and distribution systems.
Electricity consumption grew at an average annual rate of 8.3 percent between 1949 and 1973. As a result, larger power generation plants and grid systems were built that enabled power to be distributed over larger distances. In 1978, the implementation of the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act paved the way for non-utility-owned power plants to produce and sell electricity. By the 1990s, open access to the power grid for private sellers was a reality.
Today, the power grid provides electricity to more than 125 million residential customers across the United States, as well as approximately 17.6 million commercial and 775,000 industrial customers. Residential use accounts for about 37 percent of electrical grid power consumption, compared to 36 percent for commercial users and 27 percent for industrial users.
The Rise of Alternative Electrical Power Generation Sources
While the privatization of grid power in many areas of the country has given consumers more choices in terms of their electricity supplier, and has helped reduce costs in some instances, there has been an increasing demand for alternative electrical power generation sources. Environmental concerns about carbon emissions produced by electricity generation through the burning of fossil fuels, soaring utility costs and the desire to reduce dependency on utility companies for power are just a few of the many reasons consumers are seeking to get "off the grid."
There are numerous alternative electrical power generation methods currently used today. Some of the more popular methods include:
- Solar power: Solar power is considered a form of renewable energy, which means it is derived from a source that cannot be depleted - in this case, the sun. There are several types of solar power systems for generating electricity, including:
- Photovoltaic systems: A photovoltaic system consists of large, flat panels that are placed atop residential and commercial structures. These panels contain photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into DC electricity.
- Solar thermal systems: A solar thermal power plant is equipped with a series of mirrors that direct sunlight onto an absorber, which drives turbines that generate electricity. This concept is known as concentrating solar power (CSP).
- Solar updraft towers: Some solar power plants feature solar updraft towers, which are essentially giant chimneys surrounded by greenhouse-like solar collection zones. Heated air rises up through the chimney, while simultaneously powering turbines that generate electricity.
- Wind power: Wind energy, another form of renewable energy, is generated by large turbines that somewhat resemble giant windmills or fans. However, wind turbines operate in the opposite manner of a fan. Instead of using electricity to produce wind, turbines use wind to generate electricity. The wind causes the turbine's blades to rotate, spinning a shaft connected to a generator that produces the electrical power. The availability and effectiveness of wind-generated electrical power is directly related to factors such as wind patterns and speeds, nearby bodies of water and contours of the surrounding terrain. The sizes and types of wind turbines also play prominent roles.
- Nuclear power: Nuclear energy is produced via fission, which is the process of splitting a large uranium atom into two smaller atoms. In order to split the atom, it must be struck with a subatomic particle called a neutron. During a nuclear reaction, several neutrons are released to split numerous atoms. This in turn creates a chain reaction that generates heat, which is then converted into electricity.
Nuclear power is produced at specially designed and constructed power plants that contain a nuclear reactor where fission occurs. There are approximately 100 nuclear reactors in the United States, which supply about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Nuclear power is typically not classified as a renewable energy source. Although it is a low-carbon energy source that has minimal environmental impact, the reaction process requires the use of a mineral fuel, which depletes the availability of this resource. Additionally, the waste produced during a nuclear reaction is highly radioactive, which can pose a significant health hazard if it should happen to escape into the atmosphere.
The Need for Reliable Power Generation Plating
As one might imagine, the equipment used to generate solar, wind and nuclear power can take quite a beating over time. For instance, solar and wind power generation equipment is subjected to constant exposure to the elements, which can create issues such as corrosion and premature wear. Nuclear power systems can also experience problems related to radiation exposure. Finding ways to protect and prolong the lifespan of power generation systems parts and components is an absolute necessity in terms of providing peak performance, increasing equipment lifespan and ensuring the safety of facility workers and the public at large.
Power generation plating is a common practice in the manufacturing of equipment for the power generation industry. Plating entails the application of a metal coating on the surface of other metal parts. One coating application method is electroplating, where the metal part is immersed in an electrolyte solution containing dissolved ions of another metal. An external power source is used to produce an electric current that causes the ions to "stick" to the surface of the part, a process known as electrodeposition. Deposition can also occur via an autocatalytic reaction instead of via electricity, a technique known as electroless plating.
What Are the Benefits of Metal Plating for the Power Generation Industry?
Power generation plating can provide a number of critical benefits, including:
- Corrosion protection
- Increased wear resistance
- Electrical conductivity
- Heat resistance
- Increased surface hardness
- Enhanced electrical conductivity
- Friction reduction
- Light and energy absorption
- Increased thickness
- Greater adhesion
We will now take a closer look at power generation plating as it pertains to solar, wind and nuclear power.
Metal Coatings for Solar Power Generation
The primary application of solar power generation plating involves the manufacturing of solar cells that comprise the photovoltaic panels. The cells perform the essential function of transforming the sunlight captured by the panel into electricity. The sunlight activates the cell and enables it to produce a current and voltage to create the electrical power. A condensed version: The cell material, typically silicon or silver, absorbs light and energizes electrons, which produces high-voltage electricity. The energized electrons then move from the cell to an external circuit, where they dissipate their energy prior to returning to the cell.
The role of plating in solar cell manufacturing entails the coating of exposed silicon (or silver in situations involving the use of this precious metal). Specifically, plating takes place on the front and rear metal contacts and other, less conductive areas within the cell. The plated metal increases the overall thickness of the substrate in these areas. The focus of current power generation plating technologies is on finding ways to reduce the amount of silicon or silver used in the manufacturing of solar cells, which will help to minimize the overall costs of solar cells and photovoltaic panels.
The two most commonly used metals in solar cell manufacturing include:
- Nickel: Nickel is a lustrous, silver-white metal known for its hardness and ductility. Nickel plating provides excellent protection against corrosion and wear, while also substantially increasing the thickness of the substrate. Application of a nickel coating can occur via electroplating or electroless plating, the latter of which provides a more even, uniform coating and makes it easier to control thickness.
- Copper: Copper metal is a bit softer and more malleable than nickel. Perhaps copper's most important benefit in terms of power generation plating is its remarkable ability to conduct electricity. In some cases, a copper coating may serve as an undercoat for a nickel topcoat.
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Metal Coatings for Wind Power Generation
A major challenge faced by manufacturers of wind power generation equipment is ensuring adequate protection against corrosion. Wind turbines are constantly exposed to the elements, which can also lead to premature wear that shortens the turbines' lifespan. Power generation plating can provide an extremely effective means of protecting essential wind turbine components. Given the relatively high cost of wind turbines, the prudent course of action is to choose products that are designed and built to withstand the rigors of harsh environments.
A particular focus is applying a protective coating to the blades of the wind turbine. Constant exposure to the weather can cause pitting that hardens the surface of the blades, leading to unstable operation and reduced turbine efficiency. This also increases the cost of wind turbine ownership in the form of higher maintenance and repair expenses. Silver plating of turbine blades offers the advantages of low-contact resistance, as well as excellent protection against corrosion.
Another area where a metal coating can prove extremely beneficial is protecting the fasteners used in the manufacturing of wind turbines. Specifically, a thin metal coating applied to A-490 steel bolts can provide significant corrosion protection without compromising or limiting their strength in any way.
Wind turbines contain many electrical components. An ultra-thin metal coating will provide a number of important benefits, including enhancing electrical performance and increasing the strength and corrosion resistance of fragile, molded plastic components.
Metal Coatings for Nuclear Power Generation
There are numerous power generation plating applications that prove advantageous for manufacturers in the nuclear power industry, including:
- Electroless nickel plating of couplings: Couplings perform the important function of connecting two shafts together to facilitate the transmission of power. Electroless nickel plating, which implements an alloy of nickel and varying amounts of phosphorous, provides excellent corrosion protection for couplings, while also increasing lubricity.
- Silver plating of bus bars: Bus bars facilitate electrical conductivity within electrical components, such as battery banks and switchboards. The silver plating of bus bars enhances their conductivity, as silver is regarded as the most electrically conductive of all the metals. Additional silver plating benefits include good corrosion resistance and heat conductivity, as well as low-contact resistance.
- Tin plating of electrical switchgear: Switchgear permits on and off switching of power generators and also detects the presence of inordinately heavy power loads that could cause extensive damage to power generation equipment. Tin plating offers a cost-effective metal coating solution that provides corrosion protection, greater solderability and enhanced-contact resistance.
- Zinc-nickel plating of fasteners: High-strength fasteners are vital for the safe operation of nuclear power generation equipment. A zinc-nickel alloy, which can include anywhere from 80-94 percent zinc and 6-20 percent nickel content, depending on the applications, offers a relatively low-cost corrosion protection solution. The zinc-nickel serves as a sacrificial barrier that prevents rust from reaching the underlying substrate surface.
- Anodizing of turbine blade roots: Anodizing is a metal coating technique for aluminum parts and components that transforms the aluminum metal to a non-conductive aluminum oxide. Hard-coat anodizing can increase corrosion resistance and hardness, and enhance the wear resistance of aluminum materials found in nuclear power generation equipment.
Sharretts Plating Company Provides Metal Plating for the Power Generation Industry
Reliable, cost-effective metal finishing for the power generation industry requires an experienced company that can handle these demanding applications. With more than 90 years of metal finishing expertise at our disposal, you can count on SPC to provide the best solution for your needs and budget. We have the capabilities to develop a customized metal finishing process for companies in the solar, wind, and nuclear power industries. Our services include precious metals plating as well as copper, zinc, tin, nickel and zinc-nickel plating, anodizing, abrasive blasting and much more.
At SPC, quality is the primary focus of every metal finishing process we develop and implement for our customers. We're an ISO-certified company that implements the highest quality standards in every area of our organization. Our goal is to produce a metal coating result that will provide total satisfaction for every customer, no matter the size or scope of the project.
Contact Us for More Information Today
Contact SPC for more information about our power generation plating processes for the solar, wind and nuclear power industries. We will also be happy to arrange an on-site metal finishing consultation at your convenience and provide a no-obligation quote for any of our plating or other metal finishing services.
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"I would like to thank you for the help you have provided us in developing an electroless nickel plating technique on an unusual substrate. The sample platings you provided show that we should be able to reach our goals. I especially appreciate your willingness to take on an unusual job, with the uncertainties that that entails...We are looking forward to working with you in the future on our plating needs."
– Robert K.