Diary of an engineer: "Can't run ethically without that"

Submitted by AWL on 15 June, 2021 - 5:53 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

The manager, M, steps back from his standing desk towards the whiteboard. He draws a large pipe, with two smaller pipes branching off it.

M: “We’re going to put two stab-ins into the chimney stack. These will extract some of the gas — “he draws a tank connecting the smaller pipes “and send it into a centrifuge — “he draws a spiral of air within the tank “which will extract the carbon from the gas.”

M grimaces: “But it’s not very efficient or useful. Carbon capture and storage… what’s the point in putting the energy into this process, then burning carbon to transport it, just to put it back in a hole in the ground? That’s not useful to anyone. So — !”

He wipes away the tank and one of the pipes, then draws a larger tank filled with liquid.

M: “Algae lives off carbon, nitrogen oxides… a lot of the products we send up the stack. If we feed algae with these pollutants, we’re not sending them into the atmosphere and we’re making a very useful fuel. Have you ever heard of spirulina?”

Me: “In smoothies?”

M: “Yes and in protein shakes, that sort of thing.”

Me: “It’s pricey!”

M: “Yes, it’s very nutritious. Our spirulina probably won’t be fit to go directly into foods, but it can be used to enrich soil.” He gestures towards a company logo in a powerpoint on the computer. “Veolia are quite close to the company doing the carbon capture and storage — but I think [the directors] will be persuaded by the idea we’re actually producing something useful that can be sold and used now.”

He wipes the board clean and opens up another slide on the power point, showing a graphic of a power station, a network of pipes, and two large tanks.

M: “The other project I want to get moving is hydrogen manufacture. I’ve been speaking to a local company — they think they can install a plant over the road. We’d run a private power line over to the hydrogen plant — “

Me: “That’s electrolysis…?”

M: “Yes, exactly — and so we’d need to prioritise turbine power generation for the hydrogen plant. The hydrogen would go into the bin wagons, local buses and vehicles. But that also means that we won’t be directing as much steam into District Heating, because we’ll need all the steam going into the turbine to generate power for hydrogen. So... biomass.”

He draws two tanks on the whiteboard, connected to large oblongs to represent the district heating back-up gas boilers.

M: “We set up the District Heating boilers to run on biomass — I’ve got another company involved in this — we do a trial run on one of the boilers, replace the burner, and monitor the output from it — emissions, noise, smell — get the councillors down here to see it.”

Me: “What kind of biomass?”

M: “I’m hoping for used cooking oil, from the city.”

Me: “I knew a bus company in Brighton who used to run off that.”

M: “The thing about this is — the boiler house scada will need to be upgraded or changed so that changes in demand from District Heating customers won’t affect power generation. The boiler house needs to be able to respond automatically to the network.”

Me: “What about this new Heat Network regulation next year? Will District Heating be expanding?”

M: (grimacing) “I’m not sure that’s really going to mean anything for us. We can’t force buildings to connect, not when we have a monopoly and high connection costs... I’m trying to get District Heating turned into a non-profit, so that money made goes back into maintenance. We can’t run um...”

Me: “Ethically?”

M: “Exactly — without that.”

• Emma Rickman is an apprentice engineer at a Combined Heat and Power plant.

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