Mighty Boilers: Powering Industry for Over 250 Years

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on October 18, 2016
Traver Kennedy
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On the surface, boilers don’t necessarily sound like an inspiring topic for an article about energy here on our blog. However, the perspective changes completely when you realize that the basic principle behind them—boiling water to produce steam or heat—gave rise to the steam engine, which fueled one of the most dramatic technological leaps in human history, the Industrial Revolution, starting in 1760.


This week, we bring you a bit of history and perspective on how crucial boilers—and the burners that ignite them—were back then and how vital they continue to be for industry. They are so prevalent in industrial and commercial applications, not to mention homes, that they need to play a key role in sustainability. Making them clean is an imperative to help fight climate change.

The Workhorse of Industry

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a boiler as an “apparatus designed to convert a liquid to vapor. In a conventional steam power plant, a boiler consists of a furnace in which fuel is burned, surfaces to transmit heat from the combustion products to the water, and a space where steam can form and collect.” In other words, a boiler is a very simple machine that is cheap to operate and relatively efficient.

Although most people associate steam power with the first railroads and steamboats of the early 19th century, the fact is that nearly all of the electricity in the world is created from steam that is produced by a boiler. Steam also continues to be the power source of choice for many industrial and commercial applications today—from chemical manufacturing and food processing to petroleum refining and pulp and paper processing. Go to any factory, hospital, hotel, college campus, or government facility anywhere, and the odds of finding a boiler—or hundreds of them—are almost 100%. In the U.S. alone, boilers still account for 40% of all the industrial energy consumed.

Boilers not only generate steam power; they generate enormous economic growth. For starters, 250 years ago, when the steam engine was perfected and became widespread, machine automation transformed the world. Steam power boosted the iron industry (as most machines and boilers were made of iron), the coal industry, and later, the utility industry. The importance of this mighty machine on human progress and economic growth simply can never be overstated.

Powering Boilers

The first boilers were powered with wood and coal. Both resources were cheap and available in Europe and the U.S. The image of the train operator shoveling coal into the boiler chamber defines the era of the first steam engines. Decades later, oil, natural gas, and nuclear became the fuel of choice for boilers, mainly because of their higher energy content but also because the explosive growth of the industry depleted forests all around the world, driving up the cost of wood. While entire industries, such as transportation, moved away from steam power in the early 20th century, innovation continued to make boilers efficient and cost-effective for a broad range of industrial and commercial applications, from office buildings and factories to homes and schools. Boilers have become quite efficient but the basic core technology behind these workhorses remains virtually unchanged. In fact, more than three-quarters of the global boiler population was installed before 1986.

Sustainability Calling

Sustainability is pushing the industry towards a big leap in innovation. Today, the most prevalent fuels for boilers are hydrocarbons, specifically gas and oil. The use of carbon-emitting fuel is a problem that the industry is working to tackle. Several initiatives around the world are looking at alternative fuels for boilers. For example, the city of Leeds in the UK has a plan to replace gas with hydrogen as the fuel for boilers in homes. This is just one example of how the industry is becoming aware of the need to move to a sustainable energy source for their heating needs and is acting on it.

Pressure to produce and use sustainable boilers and burners comes from many fronts. Government regulations on carbon emissions are making it more expensive to use gas and oil, especially since most nations are working to honor their Paris Agreement commitment by curtailing carbon emissions. Moreover, companies are being pressured by consumer demand for “sustainable” products and services. From retail to hospitality, the heat (pun intended) is increasing.

Sustainable equipment is now a demand that cannot be ignored. These demands encompass several key market challenges that industrial boiler and burner equipment providers must navigate to ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of their business. Shareholders, for instance, are divesting away from fossil fuels and moving into clean energy solutions. Burners and boilers are responsible for trillions of tons of annual CO2 emissions; therefore, a way to de-carbonize their business is urgent. Manufacturers and operators also face ever tougher environmental regulations and need to help their customers comply by making their equipment burn cleaner. Finally, customers want it all; they demand a reliable source of clean energy that is cost-competitive to existing hydrocarbon solutions.

The Hydrogen Alternative

At Joi Scientific, we are working to produce a no-compromise energy alternative for industrial boiler and burner manufacturers and operators to help them meet consumer demands, shareholder expectations, and government regulations. Our Hydrogen 2.0 technology will give the boiler and burner industry abundant, carbon-free energy to meet growing demand for heating equipment that runs on sustainable energy. Boiler operators will be able to use Hydrogen 2.0 for the localized production of hydrogen at the point of use, safely and affordably, without the need for expensive retrofits or infrastructure in most instances.

This could provide the transformative innovation the industry needs so that the mighty boiler, made clean and sustainable, can continue to steam progress and economic growth for another 250 years.


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