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Researchers Developing Wireless Sensor Network for Smart Boiler Systems

Project Is Supported by $500,000 Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy

Prof. Xuejun Lu and his student working in the lab Photo by Joson Images
Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Xuejun Lu, standing, and his former graduate student work with a high-powered laser in the lab on an unrelated project.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a team of researchers from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering a three-year grant of nearly $500,000 to develop a new, wireless high-temperature sensor network for smart, coal-fired boilers used in industry.

Led by Prof. Xuejun Lu, the project will enable automated, continuous monitoring of a boiler’s condition in real time.

“To our best knowledge, this is one of the first efforts for this kind of research,” says Lu.

The network will consist of radio-frequency temperature sensors with integrated antennas for wireless, internet-based remote monitoring, explains Lu. Each sensor can measure boiler temperatures of more than 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,800 degrees Celsius).

“When combined with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, the network will allow us to manage the boiler’s condition and optimize its efficiency, resulting in significant energy savings and improved reliability,” he says.

Lu is the principal investigator for the project, with Prof. Xingwei Wang and Assoc. Prof. Chunxiao Chigan as co-principal investigators. The team will also collaborate with industry partners, including Advanced Manufacturing LLC and General Electric Co.

UMass Lowell is one of 12 universities nationwide to receive a share of $6 million in funding from the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy. The agency says that the grants were awarded to “support early-stage, fundamental research that advances the science of coal technologies, while also helping train the next generation of energy researchers, scientists and engineers at U.S. colleges and universities.”

Other grant recipients include Johns Hopkins University; the University of California, Riverside; the University of Maryland, College Park; the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Reducing Carbon Emissions

Boilers and furnaces are used everywhere, from thermal power plants to residential heating systems. 

“They consume the most significant amount of energy,” Lu notes. “Therefore, optimizing the operation of boilers and furnaces to improve fuel efficiency can lead not only to tremendous savings, but also bring tremendous benefits to our environment.”

In 2019 about 2.6 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity were generated by fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum and other gases) in power plants through boilers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

“As a rough estimation, a 1 percent improvement in boiler efficiency will provide energy savings of around 30 billion kilowatt-hours,” says Lu. “This corresponds to about 300 billion cubic feet of natural gas and about 17 million tons of carbon emission saved.”

Lu says the DOE project will train graduate students in science, engineering and technology, especially in strategic, high-demand fields such as high-temperature materials and nanofabrication, wireless sensor network technologies and AI algorithms.

“Such education and training are expected to provide a qualified workforce for the U.S. energy industry,” he says.