Laser robots save millions of dollars for the power industry

A research team from Swinburne is heading to Adelaide in September to carry out on-site maintenance of a turbine aboard TXU Australia's Torrens Island power station, using laser technology that could potentially save the power generation industry millions of dollars in
costly and time-consuming turbine maintenance.

The Swinburne team, led by Professor Milan Brandt from the university's Industrial Research Institute (IRIS), has played a leading role in developing the technology, which uses laser robots to carry out on-site repairs of power station turbine blades. Professor Brandt is considered one of Australia's leading researchers in the
field. The development is the result of a collaborative effort between research teams from CSIRO and Swinburne, through the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Welded Structures.

Professor Brandt said the blades of steam turbines in coal-fired power stations suffer erosion from the impact of water droplets in the steam and need to be repaired every seven or eight years to maintain efficiency. While laser surfacing technology has been available for some
time, the blades could only be repaired off-site, meaning they have to be removed and later re-fitted, resulting in downtime coss of up to $250,000 per day.

"The objective was to find a way to repair turbine blades without having to remove them," Professor Brandt said. "The technology we have developed is called 'In-Situ Laser Surfacing', and overcomes this limitation by allowing on-site repair."

Using state-of-the-art robotics and laser technology, the repair process combines a programmable robot, a special diode laser and a 'gun' that feeds a metallic surfacing compound into the eye of the laser, which deposits it along the edge of the turbine blade. The
direct diode laser – the only one of its kind in Australia – is mounted on a coaxial head that can operate at any angle, allowing it to reach otherwise inaccessible places. The laser focuses very intense light on a small spot on the blade surface, and transmits little heat to
avoid causing distortion or heat stress to the precision-shaped blades.

Repairing a turbine's blades using this technology takes up to four weeks, compared to around ten weeks for off-site repair, with cost savings of around $2 million. The process also gives the blades a tough coating that should also significantly extend their working life.

According to Professor Brandt, this technology can also be applied to other sectors, such as the mining, automotive, and aerospace industries.

"This is world-leading technology, and is an example of how the university's research has been successfully translated into practical solutions to solve industry problems."

A spin-off company, Hardwear Pty Ltd, has been set up to commercialize the technology, which has already attracted a lot of interest from local power generators and large international firms that make turbine

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