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Coal-mill optimisation in coal-fired power stations aids flexibility

January 23rd, 2018, Published in Articles: Energize by Mike Rycroft, EE Publishers

Many of the existing pulverised coal-fired (PCF) power stations are operated at a fixed
steady load (i.e. baseload operation). There is however a growing requirement for load
following or flexible operation, which requires flexibility in most of the components of
the power station. Flexibility and efficiency can be improved by close control of the
coal milling plant.

As with any high performance piece of thermal machinery, the achievement of peak
performance depends on the quality of the fuel fed into the plant. With PCF it is not only the
heat value of the pulverised coal but the size and shape of the particles which affect
performance. So does the rate at which coal is blown into the furnace. This is all controlled by
the coal mill or pulveriser, and its associated feeder equipment. Operation of the coal mill can
affect the ramp rate of the power station and its ability to handle rapid changes in output. For
coal-fired power plants, the response time of the coal mills is critical for the overall reaction
time to changing demand.

Flexible operation or load following requires that the output of the plant can be made to vary
in accordance with demand and in accordance with allowable ramp rates. Varying the
electrical output can be achieved by varying the mechanical output of the steam turbine. There
are various ways of doing this but all are dependent upon the ability of the fuel supply and the
combustion system to respond to demand changes.

Typical PCF plant can operate down to levels of 40 to 50% of maximum capacity, but new
flexibility requirements require operation down to 20% or lower. The limiting factor can be the
coal mills themselves. This is often solved in multi-mill operation by shutting down some of the
mills and burners, but this often requires modifications to the furnace burner arrangement to
ensure that the flame can be sustained at low loads. Modifications and closer control of coal
mills allows operation at lower load levels.

Combustion system requirements

The fineness of the coal powder and the uniformity of the coal flow sent to the burners are
crucial parameters to achieve an effective combustion in coal-fired power plants. Coal
pulverisers or coal mills are the heart of a PCF boiler. Often, the root causes of non-optimised
combustion lie with the pulverisers. Capacity, reliability, and environmental issues such as
slagging, fouling, and higher-than-desired CO or NO emissions; overheated superheater and
reheater tube metals, and cinder fouling of selective catalytic reduction catalyst and air heaters
have all, at times, been linked to poor pulveriser performance [3].

The key to improving the load following capability is the control of the fuel supply to the burner,
which is provided by the coal mill. Coal mills play a critical part in the flexible operation or load
following operation of PCF plants. Critical components which need to be controlled in coal
supply operation are coal-feed rate, air-feed rate, and particle size.

Many problems experienced with ramp rates and flexible operation of PCPP can be traced to
coal mills, both the mill itself and the operation and control system. Poor pulverised fuel (PF)
distribution to burners has a significant, negative effect on combustion efficiency, wear of
equipment and emissions, not to mention economics. Coal mills can only operate within a
range of capacities (t/hr) depending on the design and control system used.

Mill operating window

Mill operating parameters determine the mill operating window which provides the limits in
which a mill best operates, and outside of which constraints are experienced. The mill
operating window is plotted using the mill operating parameters, such as drying limit, erosion
limit, milling capacity limit, tampering limit, flame stability limit and pulverised coal transport.
Fig. 1 shows a typical mill operating window.

Fig. 1: Mill operating window [2].

Indirect firing

Flexibility can be increased by the use of indirect firing where the output of the mill is fed
directly to the boiler, and the mill system must be capable of responding to changes in load
rapidly. In the indirect system the output of the mill is fed to a storage bunker (Fig. 2). Indirect
firing has the advantage that the mill does not have to follow rapid changes in load but can
operate at an average rate. The air/fuel ratios are controlled by the bunker system.

Pulverised fuel requirements

Efficient boiler operation requires close control of the pulverised coal particle sizes. Coarse
coal particles do not burn as quickly, easily, or cleanly as finer particles. Because they take
longer to burn, coarse coal particles raise a boiler’s average NO emissions. They also foster
agglomeration and deposition of slag, making boilers and heat-recovery boilers more
vulnerable to fouling. Coarse coal can even poison the catalyst of a selective
catalytic reduction (SCR) system. If enough coarse coal passes through a boiler without
being burned completely, its fly-ash may have too much unburned carbon (UBC) for
commercial use [4].

Fig. 2: Indirect firing system [8].

Particle size range fuel fineness

The ideal situation would be to have coal particles all of the same size. This is not possible for
various reasons and so a range of sizes is adopted. The ideal size is taken as 74 μm or
smaller, but standards allow a range of larger particles, the amount decreasing with size until
the maximum size acceptable is reached. The standard test applied to ground coal particles
measures the percentage of a sample that passes through a series of sieves of decreasing
size. This profile is plotted in what is known as a Rossin-Rammier size distribution curve. Fig.
3 shows an example of the plot for a power station [4].

Fig. 3: Rossin-Rammier plot for a typical power station [2].

Fineness is expressed as the percentage pass through a 200‐mesh screen (74 μm).
Coarseness is expressed as the percentage retained on a 50‐mesh screen (297 μm). Typical
recommended value of pulverised fuel fineness through 200 mesh sieve is 70% and 1%
retention on 50 mesh sieve. The standard method of testing is to withdraw a sample from the
pipes feeding the burner and run the sample through a series of sieves. Instruments have
been developed that allow in line testing or particle size distribution.

Mill operation

The mill in operation carries out four functions simultaneously namely, grinding, drying,
classification and transportation of product to the burners. The coal mill is not the only
component involved in the combustion path which must be controlled. In addition, there is
heated combustion air fed to the mill to transport the pulverised coal, and the secondary air
supply as shown in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4: Fuel feed control system components [3].


The grinding function reduces coal fed into the mill into a dust with particles of the size required
for combustion. There are two main types of mill in common use: the spindle type and the
drum type. A typical spindle mill is shown in Fig. 5 and Fig. 6.

The vertical spindle mill crushes coal by feeding it between a grinding roller and either a bowl,
table or ring at the bottom. Coal enters via the coal feed and falls into the grinding zone, where
it is crushed by the grinding wheels. The coal particles are spun outwards by the rotation of
the grinding table, and transported by the incoming heated air feed to the classifier, which
separates particles based on size. Particles which are too large are returned to the crusher,
while those which are within the required size limits are fed via the output to the burner. The

grinding operation is controlled by varying both speed of rotation of the grinding table and
pressure on the rollers.

Fig. 5a: Typical spindle mill [3].

Fig. 6: Simplified typical spindle mill diagram [3].


Immediate contact with the hot primary air feed evaporates any moisture contained in the
ground coal particles, so that the desired mill outlet temperature is achieved.


The classification process ensures that coal particles of the correct size are fed to the boiler
and larger particles are returned to the crushing table. There are two types of classifier: static

and dynamic. Both use centrifugal force to carry out the classification function. In the static
classifier the coal particles are passed through an angled vane structure. Heavier particles
collide with the vanes, lose energy and fall back into the grinder. The particle size is controlled
by varying the angle of the vanes. Fig. 7 shows a typical static classifier.

Fig. 7: Static classifier [9].

A dynamic classifier includes a set of rotating vanes in addition to the static vanes. The speed
of rotation can be varied to alter the performance of the classifier. Particles passing through
the static vane stage encounter the moving vanes which remove medium-sized particles,
giving a two stage classification function. Only the finer particles make it to the outlet.
Significant performance improvement has been claimed for dynamic classifiers, including
increased throughput and finer control of particle size [5]. Fig. 8 shows the results obtained by
retrofitting dynamic classifiers to existing plant.

Fig. 8: Improvement from fitting dynamic classifier [5].

Transfer of product to the burners

Pulverised coal that passes through the classifier is carried to the burners by the primary air
flow. Along the way it is mixed with secondary air to achieve the required coal/air ratio. The
configuration of the feed pipes for each burner can differ, resulting in different air flow rates
and different coal feed rates, and balancing off the feed rates is required.

Fig. 9: Diagram of a dynamic classifier (B&W)

Control of coal-mill operation

It is fairly obvious that a great deal of instrumentation and measurement points, as well as an
advanced control system, are required to optimise the performance of the combustion system.
Proportional-integral-ID systems are commonly used to control the operation of the
combustion system, but are known to have drawbacks, and model predictive control (MPC)
systems have been considered as an alternative [6]. All systems require accurate assessment
of the parameters governing the operation of the system. Control systems measure the value
of an output parameter, and compare with either a set point or a system model and adjust
input values accordingly. The operation of the mill is complex and in many cases the output
can be affected by more than one factor, necessitating complex modelling procedures [7].

Mill load lines

A mill is normally controlled to operate according to a mill load line, which maintains a
relationship between the air and fuel mass flow. There are a few reasons for this form of control
 To ensure that at mill start up and low load (throughput) operation, there is sufficient
air flow to maintain the minimum required velocity to prevent particle settling in the PF
 To ensure that as the fuel flow is increased the air flow is increased accordingly so as
to prevent mill choking by evacuating the pulverised fuel from the mill.

A typical mill load line is shown in Fig. 10.

Fig. 10: Mill load line [2].

The operating range is primarily determined by the air flow rate and the mill capacity. Below
the lower operating level there is difficulty in maintaining the flame in the furnace. Minimum
operating load is defined as the lowest safe and reliable power plant operation mode without
the use of supplementary firing. Low load operation is characterised by worse relative
emissions and efficiency, which both reflect negatively on the marginal cost of production.

Air to fuel ratios

Pulveriser capacity is not simply a measure of coal throughput. Capacity refers to a certain
coal throughput at a given fineness, raw coal sizing, HGI (Hardgrove grindability index), and
moisture. Often, if the desired coal throughput or load response is not achieved, the primary
airflow will be elevated to higher flow rates than are best for capacity. However, increased
throughput achieved in this way sacrifices fuel fineness.
When the primary airflow is higher than optimum, it creates entrainment of larger-than-desired
coal particles leaving the mills, promotes poor fuel distribution, lengthens flames, and impairs
low-NO burner performance.


Much effort has been put into gaining a few percentage points of efficiency by the use of
supercritical and ultracritical technologies, but the performance of a modern PCF power station
still depends on the efficient operation of a mechanical coal grinder. Proper maintenance and
control of pulverisers is essential for efficient performance.


[1] M Wiatros Motyka: “Optimising fuel flow in pulverised coal and biomass-fired boilers”, IEA
Clean Coal Centre, CCC/263, January 2016.
[2] H Archary: “Condition monitoring and performance optimisation of pulverised fuel vertical
spindle type mills”, MSc Thesis: EPPEI specialisation centre in combustion engineering,
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
[3] SR Cheteya: “Performance optimisation of vertical spindle coal pulverisers”, MSc Thesis,
North West University, November 2016.

[4] R Storm: “Coal pulveriser maintenance improves boiler combustion”, Powermag, January
[5] R Summerland and K Dugdale: “Dynamic classifiers improve pulveriser performance and
more”, Powermag, July 2015.
[6] P Niemczyk: “Improved coal grinding and fuel flow control in thermal power plants”, 18th
IFAC World Congress, Milano, 28 August to 2 September 2011.
[7] P Pradheepa, et al: “Modeling and Control of Coal Mill”, Tenth IFAC International
Symposium on Dynamics and Control of Process Systems, Mumbai, 18 to 20 December
[8] C Henderson: “Increasing the flexibility of coal-fired power plants”, IEA Clean Coal
Centre, September 2014.
[9] D Storm, et al: “Performance driven maintenance of coal pulverisers: Importance of mill
performance testing” Storm technologies.