Applying machine learning knowledge on campus to reduce carbon emissions

Sara Bahr started her Summer Research project not knowing anything about industrial steam boilers.

04 Feb 2021

Now the fourth year University of Waikato Computing and Mathematical Science student is helping create a ‘digital twin’ steam boiler.

“It has been an amazing project.  I went in not knowing anything about chemical engineering, and not even knowing what a boiler was,” Sara says.

“But I came in with coding and software development knowledge and in 6 or 7 weeks I have learnt a lot more than I ever thought I could.”

The research could ultimately help reduce carbon emissions in New Zealand – an outcome which motivates her every day.  “The overall goal is net zero carbon emissions in New Zealand.”

Fossil fuel steam boilers are used widely as a way of creating high quality steam used in power plants.   But they cause air pollution.

Basically, Sara is looking into implementing machine learning to predict performance, using the test boiler on the University of Waikato campus.

The aim is to improve the way steam boilers work and to help reduce any emissions that may be harmful to the environment.

To do this, she has looked into creating a ‘digital twin,’ to simulate the boiler.

Through using sensors, the software records data in ‘real time’ to build a picture of what the boiler is doing at different times.

“We can predict how the boiler is acting and how it is going to react to certain changes and then from there evaluate the best ways to improve its performance.”

“With the digital twin we want to add adaptive technology and machine learning to then be able to retrofit the plant.

Sara, 21, has been working under the guidance of supervisors’ Dr Tim Walmsley, Senior Lecturer in Chemical and Process Engineering; and Dr Panos Patros, Lecturer & Deputy Head, Department of Software Engineering.

She has been offered a PhD to continue working on the project next year which has exciting potential to apply to the New Zealand industry.

“It is a multi-disciplinary project which basically teaches me thermodynamics, as well as the software side of machine learning and control.’

Sarah did her work placement in Auckland last year for medical software company Orion Health.

But she loves the energy space, and the former Hamilton Girls’ High School student aims to work in this sector when she graduates.

This research aligns with the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

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