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When I first heard the word “quadrillion,” I thought it was a fictitious number like “gazillion” or “bazillion,” but it turns out to be a real number: 1015 or, if you will, a million times a billion. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time getting my mind around a number that big. I did some calculations that I thought might help: there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year, so a quadrillion seconds would be the number of seconds in nearly 31,709,792 years, which is about 3,171 times longer than the Earth, or even time, has been in existence. This is still nearly impossible to grasp, so I decided to resign myself to the fact that it is just a really big number.
Another term with which I am more familiar is “Btu,” which stands for British thermal unit. It represents the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. When talking about very large amounts of energy, the insiders like to combine the two terms and just call them “Quads,” meaning quadrillions of British thermal units.
So, what’s the point? Well, a recent study explored the use of fluid power in the agricultural, mobile, industrial, and aerospace industries. It found that fluid power is one of the leading consumers of energy in North America, using somewhere in the area of 3.1 quadrillion Btu’s (Quads) per year. The same study suggested that fluid power is, on average, only 21% efficient. This is like good news and bad news. The good news is that we are recognized as a leader in the transfer of power and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The bad news is that our systems are inefficient, and we are vulnerable to losing market share to other means of power transfer.
I have some more mind-boggling numbers for you to consider: it is estimated that 45-million gallons of water flow over Niagara Falls every minute. The amount of water consumed by fluid power systems in one year is enough to take all the icy water flowing over the falls for 33 days and bring it to the boiling point, an increase of 180°F. The wasted energy is enough to raise the temperature of that same amount of water 142°F. Given a cost of $.10/kWh, each year about $88 billion is spent powering fluid systems. Of that, about $70 billion is wasted due to inefficiency. Someone responded to this information and suggested that the fluid power industry could make a 5% improvement by simply using “best practices.” If this is true, then we could save about $3.5 billion in energy costs just by doing what we already know how to do and know we should do.
It was this information that caused the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA), the Fluid Power Distributors Association (FPDA), and the International Fluid Power Society (IFPS) to join forces and sponsor the first Fluid Power Systems Conference in November 2011. People from all aspects of the fluid power Industry gathered to take a hard look at the way we use energy, as well as ways in which we can improve. I had the privilege of participating in the conference and experienced the enthusiasm of those who attended. We heard discussions on new, efficient fluids; hybrid hydraulic drive systems; tiny hydraulic systems used as prosthetics; ways to improve the efficiency of compressed air systems; and methods to better store and release fluid energy with minimal waste. The conference revealed that there is much more that needs to be done and that there is a lot of interest from all corners of the industry to get it done. As a result, plans immediately began for a second conference to be held in Chicago, November 27-29, 2012.
In the 2008 Tech Directory issue of the Fluid Power Journal, I wrote an article titled, “Focus on Energy,” where I made this observation:
This is what we know: An electro-mechanical system can operate at about 96% overall efficiency. A typical hydraulic system will operate at about 78% overall efficiency. Down at the bottom of the list we find that a typical pneumatic system is about 6% efficient. So, this begs the question: With the price of energy constantly increasing and with the pressure to “go green,” why would anyone in his right mind choose to use fluid power as a means to do work?
Those of us who are passionate about fluid power know that there are a number of very good reasons to consider fluid power as a means to do work. There is the concentration of force, the removal of heat, the flexibility, and the ability to produce both linear and rotary motion from a common power source. We can take very heavy objects and repeatedly position them within 0.0005″. We can create vacuum that will allow us to pick up delicate and oddly shaped material and safely move it. These are all appropriate things to discuss when presenting the case for fluid power, and many of us have been successful in doing so.
I then drew this conclusion:
… if fluid power cannot be shown to be an efficient alternative to other forms of power transfer, then we may as well start packing up our formulas and find some other line of work.
The frustrating fact is that fluid power does not have to be so inefficient. We are fluid power professionals. That means we are professionals at transferring energy. We need to think of ourselves as energy professionals specializing in fluid power… We need to begin thinking about the entire energy transfer system—from the combustion engine or electric motor to the work being performed. We need to view every kW wasted, every SCFM tossed away, and every Btu removed as an opportunity for improvement. To do less would be a disservice to our profession and to those who depend on our expertise.
Many of the problems involving the efficient use of fluid power are of our own making. Because we could do things that no other means of power transfer could do, we thought we were invincible. Energy was relatively inexpensive, so who cared if the air system consumed a lot of extra kW to operate? If our hydraulic power unit needed 7.5 kW to run, we would put on a 10-kW, 15-kW, or even 20-kW motor, just in case. We explained away high system pressure drop as just the cost of doing work or the cost of control. Many distributors stopped providing training for their sales forces and became replacement parts suppliers instead of initiators of positive change. Even International Fluid Power Society certifications became sales tools rather than badges of achievement and professionalism.Manufacturers still offer pipe thread on their cylinders and pumps knowing full well that it is not good for the industry, the consumer, or the environment. The study cited above is both a great challenge and a great opportunity for the fluid power industry. With competitive means of transferring energy nipping at our heels, environmental concerns weighing heavily on the minds of everyone, and huge economic issues at stake, we cannot afford to remain idle or complacent. Fluid power can and must continue to be a major player in the transfer of energy that is so necessary for our economic health. We can continually improve our efficiency, sometimes by doing what we already know how to do, and sometimes by creating new products and new approaches to energy transfer.
Welcome to the future of fluid power! I hope to see you at a Fluid Power Systems Conference.