This article discusses future of virtual engineering. Not only will the plant of the future be different from the current one, but also the design tools that engineers use will be different. To reduce cost and shorten development time for the future plants, the DOE is developing virtual engineering as an enabling technology. To integrate all the parts in an intuitive manner will require a software framework, which is being developed by the Virtual Engineering Research Group at Iowa State University. The software is a virtual engineering toolkit called YE-Suite. It is composed of three main software engines—VE-CE, VE-Xplorer, and VE-Conductor—that coordinate the flow of data from the engineer to the virtual components being designed. YE-CE is responsible for the synchronization of the data among the various analysis and process models and the engineer. VE-Xplorer is the decision-making environment that allows the engineer to interact with the equipment models in a visual manner. YE-Conductor is the engineer’s mechanism to control models and other information.


The U.S. Department of Energy has big plans for the future of coal-based power production. Advanced power plants will have higher efficiencies and dramatically lower emissions, so low that some people are referring to them as "near-zero emission" plants.

Not only will the plant of the future be different from today's, but the design tools that engineers use will be different, too. To reduce cost and shorten development time for the future plants, the DOE is developing virtual engineering as an enabling technology. It will let engineers of the near future test more ideas more quickly than they ever could by traditional methods, and no one can predict what possibilities that may unlock—not just for power generation but across entire fields of technology.

Traditionally, new designs for power facilities had to be physically built and tested at various scales. This is a costly and time-consuming process. It puts practical limits on the number and novelty of ideas that a designer can try.

The goal of the virtual engineering system is to let designers of next-generation power facilities test and develop cutting-edge technologies, such as new clean power, carbon capture, and coal-to-hydrogen technologies, before they create a pilot plant. Using virtual engineering, the DOE plans to reduce the design cycle time and to allow new technologies to reach production and operation more quickly than would have been possible in previous decades.

The system is being developed by researchers at the Ames National Laboratory, Iowa State University, Carnegie Mellon University, and industry partners including Reaction Engineering International of Salt Lake City and Fluent Inc. of Lebanon, N.H.

Many of the enabling technologies being developed are based on virtual engineering concepts.

Researchers at Iowa State's Virtual Reality Applications Center, where the development work is based, are coupling computational models with visualization and interaction tools to permit real-time exploration of proposed designs. These tools enable the engineer to explore, troubleshoot, and design systems and components within a virtual design space just as if the component were real.

New components will be placed in the power plant and overall performance of the plant checked without having to build physical models. Components will be modified in real time without having to go back to the analysis and modeling process.

The designer will have a visual interface that is as familiar and engineer-friendly as a real plant, with a few advantages added. The power plant and components will be shown at any scale needed. The engineer will be able to walk through the virtual power plant and see it run, step into a set of cleanup filters and determine why they are plugging, or simply ride a particle of coal as it travels through the plant.

These tools will reduce engineering turnaround tin"le and improve engineering designs and products. Central to obtaining these benefits is the inclusion of detailed numerical simulations of processes and components that can be accessed on the fly.

As envisioned, the software will let an engineering team alter the shape, size, operating conditions, or other characteristics of equipment in a power plant and see the effect of these changes throughout the plant. For example, an engineer wanting to change the performance characteristics of a coal gasifier may wish to adjust nozzle parameters (e.g., diameter, angle, length) that affect how the oxygen and coal slurry are injected into the gasifier. The virtual engineering system will determine what effects the changes have on the composition of the syngas being produced by the plant as well as the change in overall efficiency and cost.

Getting Up to Speed

In nearly all aspects of power plant simulation—for design, construction, or maintenance—the simulations have traditionally involved an iterative process of off-line setup, calculation, and analysis. The time required for each iteration can range from one day to several weeks. Based on engineering judgment and the results of the previous simulation, this process is then repeated for a slightly altered system until a satisfactory result is achieved. The results of the computational modeling are then typically shared with other engineers, design team members, and management. Even if three-dimensional analysis tools are used, the design team's participation in the design process is still discontinuous in that they can only actively participate in the design after each round of calculations has been completed, reviewed, and edited.

Because of the time-consuming nature of this process, detailed fluids and heat transfer calculations have generally been used near the end of the design process to gain insight, rather than at the beginning to explore new designs. Because significant changes deep into the design process are costly, the impact of detailed computational modeling on the final design is limited.

Thus, the traditional process does not support real-time, collaborative design in which the engineer establishes the dynamic thinking process needed to obtain an intuitive feel for the performance and nature of the power plant. It also does not permit the real-time exploration of questions raised by other engineers, designers, or managers. This working arrangement significantly limits the number of alternatives that can be investigated, limits the essential creative design process, and discourages the "what if" questions that allow breakthroughs in design.

Virtual engineering seeks to overcome these problems by creating a virtual workspace and closely integrating many computationally intensive technologies, such as computer-aided design and engineering, computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, high-performance computing, intelligent process control, system analysis, information management, and advanced visualization. This engineering workspace will include all aspects of plant performance, analysis results, economics models, and any other quantitative or qualitative information needed in the engineering design process.

This range of information and capability will enable all stakeholders to fully participate and understand the de tails of the analysis so that they can consider all points of view, obtain the maximum benefit of analysis, and find engineering solutions that may have been overlooked.

Virtual engineering techniques require gathering information from diverse sources throughout the power plant birth-to-death tracking process, and then adding engineering judgment and experience to transform the raw information into useful knowledge and understanding. Effectively presented information allows humans to analyze complex patterns, synthesize opportunities, and evaluate alternative processes.

Bringing together simulation programs, measured plant data, and high-fidelity visualization produces an experience similar to a physical inspection of an actual device. In such an environment, people from various disciplines with diverse but complementary experience can collaborate. This collaboration provides rich opportunities to discover the optimum, explore the unexpected, and solve problems.

Matching the Parts

To integrate all these parts in an intuitive manner will require a software framework, which is being developed by the Virtual Engineering Research Group at Iowa State University. The software is a virtual engineering toolkit called YE-Suite. It is composed of three main software engines—VE-CE, VE-Xplorer, and VE-Conductor-that coordinate the flow of data from the engineer to the virtual components being designed.

VE-CE is responsible for the synchronization of the data among the various analysis and process models and the engineer. VE-Xplorer is the decision-making environment that allows the engineer to interact with the equipment models in a visual manner. YE-Conductor is the engineer's mechanism to control models and other information.

An open-source communication standard, YE-Open, allows the YE-Suite software engines and components to be integrated seamlessly and consequently gives the engineer and other stakeholders access to the information in their virtual power plant. YE-Open is a new standard being developed at Iowa State and the Ames National Laboratory. It provides features that include distributed computing, platform independence, extensibility for component models, support for a hierarchy of component models, and comprehensive graphics capabilities including support for immersive facilities.

The overall goal of YE-Suite is to enable users to incorporate component models and corresponding two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphical representations to create new, plug-and-play components. By design, these components can be distributed across computational resources to make the most efficient use of resources.

VE-Suite is part of a group of software packages being developed to support the design of advanced power plants. Computational scientists and engineers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W. Va., are working with industrial partners to develop the Advanced Process Engineering Co-Simulator. Known as APECS, it is an integration framework that combines process simulation software with equipment models.

"Accurate process simulations are critical for enabling systems analysts to develop superior plant designs and to optimize existing plants," said Stephen Zitney, research group leader for process and dynamic systems modeling at NETL. "This powerful co-simulation technology is the first to provide the necessary level of detail and accuracy essential for engineers to better understand and optimize the fluid flow, heat and mass transfer, and chemical reactions that drive overall plant performance."

Coupled with VE-Suite and non-performance computing, APECS offers opportunities for exploiting virtual plant simulation to reduce the time, cost, and technical risk of developing high-efficiency, zero-emission power plants. VE-Suite and APECS each handle different aspects of the complex issues associated with building and developing a near zero-emission plant. APECS will be used to model the syngas flowing throughout the plant while VE-Suite will handle the integration of the disparate models associated with the birth-to-death tracking of these new power plants. APECS and YE- Suite will be integrated to build a virtual power plant that covers all aspects of power plant design, operation, and maintenance.

Virtual engineering may sound like a laboratory tool that will take a long time to reach the practical applications in industry. However, companies are starting to implement virtual engineering tools in their engineering production and design process.

For example, Fuel Tech Inc., a manufacturer of NOx control systems in Stamford, Conn., uses a virtual engineering software package called Acuitiv. Developed in-house by Fuel Tech, Acuitiv couples a computational model of an industrial furnace with a virtual environment. A user can make changes to the inlet nozzle configuration and explore various furnace configurations, then see the resulting furnace performance on the fly. This enables the engineer to consider a number of variables to create the optimal design for a particular furnace.

John Zink Co., a Tulsa-based developer of combustion systems, has implemented virtual engineering techniques by coupling experimental data with high-fidelity CFD models. The company is using VE-Suite to allow its customers to better understand the physics and engineering principles incorporated in advanced burner technologies and to evaluate their performance in a variety of industrial applications. John Zink has implemented virtual engineering techniques by integrating its industry-leading experimental research facilities with high-fidelity CFD simulation capabilities.

Christopher Jian, director of John Zink's Simulation Technology Solutions Group, said, "Advances in computational fluid dynamics and the availability of a new generation of high-speed computers have enabled us to simulate the most complex and challenging physico-chemical processes in industrial furnaces and boilers. Historically we relied on CFD experts to interpret simulation results. With the implementation of VE-Suite, we are able to offer our customers and our engineers the opportunity to evaluate the simulation results from a first-person perspective."

Upon implementation of VE-Suite into the engineering process, engineers at John Zink saw an improved understanding among customers and quicker delivery of burners. Review time decreased from approximately two weeks to one or two days, according to Jian. The combination of CFD models and burner facilities lets customers see the burner operating in a real furnace as well as in a virtual furnace.

Omaha Public Power District in Nebraska has used YE-Suite to analyze the potential fire damage to an auxiliaries building at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station. A set of Excel spreadsheets (NUREG-180S), developed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for on-site fire scenario hazard analysis, and a digital scan of an auxiliaries room are used together as inputs to VE-Suite. The resulting virtual engineering tool can then be used to determine the damage to various components depending on the fire type and location, and saves the engineer time-consuming and tedious back-and-forth checking between the spreadsheets and the physical space.

Alliant Energy, the power holding company based in Madison, Wis., is working with Iowa State University to implement a virtual engineering application to optimize the coal transport system in a power plant. In a coal-fired plant, pulverized coal is pneumatically transported toward different burner nozzles by splitting a large pipe into small pipes through bifurcators or trifurcators. During the flow through the piping, gravity, inertia, and other forces may cause the coal particles to separate from the air.

The paths of the pipes are complex, with many bends, so uneven coal distribution is common. When fuel inputs to the burner are not balanced, combustion efficiency greatly decreases, and emissions increase. This problem must be handled when designing the pipe system. The virtual engineering application that is implemented to solve this problem allows the engineer to interact with the coal transport pipes to adjust various physical aspects of the pipe, such as orifice plate diameters and locations. The engineer using this tool can focus on designing the pipe and not on the complex modeling and visualization codes.

Reducing the time and cost of developing innovative, more efficient coal-fired power plants with significantly lower emmissions is what's driving the virtual power plants program. But virtual engineering is beginning to be used in many industries. From manufacturing facilities to the design of agricultural equipment, the ability to bring together data, models, geometry, and other product information and interact with the result in a natural interface is starting to change the way we do engineering.

In the future, virtual engineering will touch almost every product design process. Imagine five to 10 years from now, when an engineer develops a custom heart valve for a patient based on real-time three-dimensional images of the heart, and can see and optimize the performance of the heart valve for that patient.

The first steps toward that kind of capability are being built today for power plant design.

Build Your Virtual Engineering Applications

VE-Suite is the open-source software toolkit that is being developed at the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University. VE-Suite is used in many of the projects discussed in this article as well as a number of other engineering projects. While much of the development has focused on power applications. VE-Suite is currently used for projects ranging from machine design to techno-economic modeling.

You can check out VE-Suite to see how it could be used in your organization at There you will find general information about the software, including how to down load it. Virtual engineering is a growing area of research and application. VE-Suite is an open source software package and is available at no charge to anyone interested in using it.