It’s More Than Just Water Over the Dam

Historical image of Keokuk Power Plant, and Lock and Dam 19
Historical image of Keokuk Power Plant, and Lock and Dam 19

I grew up in Keokuk, Iowa, exploring the rugged, tree-covered bluffs of the Mississippi River, overlooking the monolithic Powerhouse of Lock and Dam 19. The megastructure, completed in 1913, put Keokuk on the international map as home to the largest, single powerhouse, electricity generating plant in the world.

As a kid, I took tours of the Powerhouse and was awed by the rows of humming and hot generators. It was a little scary to be so close to so much electricity being produced. While there is often controversy over the environmental impact of dam construction, hydroelectric power is, at its best, clean, renewable energy. According to Ameren Corporation, the owner and operator of the Keokuk power plant, an average day of operation of the plant saves the equivalent of nearly 1,000 tons of coal.

Dams are also amazing feats of engineering.

The sheer size of the structures that were built prior to the use of computer aided engineering (CAE) make dams, such as the Hoover Dam, even more awe-inspiring. With the addition of CAE to the engineers toolbox, the size, complexity, and power generating capacity of hydroelectric dams have grown substantially.

With CAE, engineers are able to virtually test the structure of the dam, its components, and systems to gain greater confidence in the safety and reliability of the dam and its power generating systems. Finite Element Analysis and Computational Fluid Dynamics software are being used, not only for the design of new plants, but also for the monitoring of performance and structure integrity of existing dams and modernizing and upgrading power plants to improve power output, ensure their safe operation, and extend their operational life.

Three Gorges Dam
Three Gorges Dam

Today, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam by total capacity is the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River in China. Since its construction, there has been extra attention given to the testing and analysis of vibrations in the powerhouse structures caused by various kinds of dynamic loads. Researchers at School of Civil and Hydraulic Engineering at the Dalian University of Technology have written a paper on their use of Abaqus FEA from SIMULIA to analyze the strength of concrete substructure and superstructure in powerhouse #15 undergoing natural vibration frequencies.

Engineers at Norconsult, a global, multidisciplinary engineering and design consultancy located in Norway, use Abaqus FEA to perform static and dynamic structural analyses of arch dams, single and double-curvature shelled structures, and slab and buttress dams. According to their Dam Engineering brochure, their engineers also use Abaqus for permeability flow modeling of porous material in embankment dams and temperature gradient modeling, calculation of crack width, reinforcement and stress and strain in concrete dams.

Abaqus is not the only solution from Dassault Systemes being used in by dam and power plant engineers. Recently, we announced that the HydroChina Chengdu Engineering Corporation (CHIDI) selected our PLM solutions to facilitate investigation, design, and collaborative management of hydropower plants. CHIDI has significantly shortened project timelines, reduced total costs, and improved the collaboration between cross-functional teams of designers and engineers.

Having grown up overlooking a historic dam and power plant, I know a little about the power generating process, but I really take it for granted. I know the water falls over (or flows through) the dam, causing turbines to spin, and generators then create electricity. But, that’s about the extent of my working knowledge.

So, I found this short video on how hydroelectric power is created to be  informative.  Check it out, you’ll gain a better understanding of the complex, multiphysics that engineers have to take into consideration in the design and operation of a dam and power plant.

The next time you see a hydroelectric power plant in action, you will know that indeed, there is more to it than just water spilling over a dam.

Power Me Up, Scotti.

P.S. – This is the first in a series on how realistic simulation is being used in all energy sectors to improve energy exploration and production of energy to power our world. Stay tuned.