Digitalization unleashes the power of steam

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Sean Clay, Divisional Director Spirax Sarco EMEA

Sean Clay

Divisional Director Spirax Sarco EMEA


Imagine the more digital and connected factories of the future.

In these environments, data gathered from sensors can be streamed seamlessly to the cloud, with this information being used to improve performance, boost efficiency, and increase reliability.

For steam systems, rapid advances in digitalization and the growth of the Internet of Things makes this kind of innovation and efficiency available today. Paired with steam technology, it holds the key to a sustainability revolution in industry. 

Steam – a natural technology

It is already possible to make steam systems highly efficient. But new approaches are going to help make steam a truly zero carbon technology. Boilers can be powered by electricity, for example, which can be provided by renewable generation such as wind or solar power. Electric steam generators can convert renewable electricity into steam at 97% energy conversion efficiency.1 

Green hydrogen, created without carbon emissions, is another option to power steam boilers.

All of these alternatives could help organizations decarbonize their steam production. And it’s all achievable at a surprisingly realistic level of investment, with re-use of existing equipment eliminating the need to put in costly new infrastructure.

But in order to quantify the return in these updates, demonstrate improvements to stakeholders and ensure the systems are living up to their full potential, there is another piece of the puzzle. 

Data demonstrates and drives results

Advances in digital technologies are enabling industrial plants to be monitored more closely than ever before and provide better visibility of asset performance. Sensors are affordable, compact and low-power, and often include the wireless connectivity needed to send their data back to a central server. Once this data is obtained, it can be processed locally, or sent to the cloud for analysis.

The data gathered from steam systems, such as from flowmeters, control valves, steam traps and heat exchangers means that relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) can be set. This will help the systems to deliver even greater efficiencies over the longer term. 

This data is also invaluable to monitor equipment for any problems. By spotting issues early, there's an opportunity for preventative maintenance, before any more severe issues might arise. This helps to minimize downtime, which can often be prohibitively expensive in large production plants. Preventative maintenance can also help reduce any leaks, thus reducing the demand for steam.

Digital solutions mean it is easier for steam systems to be integrated into larger platforms. Data from the steam systems gives full visibility to decision-makers and enables different solutions to be used depending on what is best at any particular time – for example, choosing when to generate and use steam in response to excess electricity available from solar cells.

Data can also enable better management of the condensate water in the system, and the steam traps used to remove it for return to the boiler. Condensate typically contains about 25 per cent of the usable energy of the steam from which it came2. Returning this to the boiler feed tank can save thousands of pounds per year in energy alone. It also reduces the need for fresh replacement water, while saving money by cutting the requirement for costly chemicals to treat raw water. 

For example, Spirax Sarco carried out a project at an oil refinery that delivered energy savings of £100,000 within 12 months, simply by identifying and replacing steam traps that had failed.

Overall, digitalization and the data insights it provides can be used to further enhance the efficiency and sustainability of steam systems. As organizations push to reduce their carbon emissions to the bare minimum, all of these improvements are significant part of the journey.

Looking ahead

One of the biggest technology trends right now is the growth of artificial intelligence (AI). In industry, AI systems can create new opportunities for automation, providing the decision-making that would previously have been impossible with conventional IT systems.

Eventually, AI may enable the deployment of fully autonomous steam systems, which calibrate themselves in real-time to improve productivity and boost efficiency. There is a growing trend towards running AI algorithms on ‘edge’ processors on or near the factory floor, instead of shipping data off to the cloud, which speeds up the response to inputs – and could help make such autonomous systems a practical reality.

Right now, steam stands at a point of tremendous innovation. It can play a central role in the broader context of the climate emergency and can provide exciting opportunities for existing and next-generation technical talent who want to deliver environmental change.

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