3 May 2012
On 18 April, Imperial unveiled its new £2 million carbon capture pilot plant – the most sophisticated facility of its kind in the world for training the next generation of engineers to enter industry. The Director of the pilot plant project, Dr Daryl Williams (Chemical Engineering), pictured below right, takes Reporter’s Colin Smith on a guided tour before undergraduates take over the running of the facility on a day-to-day basis.
Plant power People walking along the walkway on the South Kensington Campus over the past two years cannot have failed to notice the general buzz of building activity going on behind the hoardings in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Dr Daryl Williams, a senior lecturer in the Department, has been in the thick of it, collaborating with building managers, construction experts, engineers and Imperial staff to bring to fruition the new pilot plant – a four-storey facility, rising up through the Department’s core. The pilot plant is part of a larger refurbishment in the Department – the ChemEng Discovery Space – a £9 million pound investment that also includes new teaching labs, research labs, offices and learning spaces.
The College has been working closely with industry on this project, and the power and automation technology company ABB in particular, to ensure that students get the most realistic experience of working in a chemical engineering plant. The plant features a wide variety of advanced control and instrumentation technology, so that students are trained to work with a range of different industrial plant systems and technologies.
“Engineering education needs to retain a hands-on element, especially as more and more academic material goes online,” explains Daryl enthusiastically, as he leads me through one of the newly finished teaching labs and into the bowels of the plant on the ground floor.
“It’s pretty amazing that students who are 18 or 19 will be able to come in here and learn how to operate this £2 million plant as part of their studies,” he adds, gesturing towards the plant machinery as we walk in. As I take in the full view, I begin to realise just how unique the learning experience for students will be.
It looks like something out of Dr Who, complete with flashing green and red lights, lots of buttons and big computer servers huddling up against the walls. In the centre of the room is a tangle of impressive-looking machinery and towering stainless steel pipes. I ask Daryl to explain the purpose of all this equipment.
“It demonstrates how coal or gas-fired power plants could capture harmful CO2 emissions before they reach the atmosphere,” he says.
Our tour and conversation is suddenly interrupted by an announcement booming over a loudspeaker: “There is an emergency! Please wait for further instructions”.
A piercing klaxon sounds and an orange light begins to flash. We hurry away from the noise, up another level and into the control room – the plant’s nerve centre – where students are involved in a training scenario; a mock crisis in the plant.
The big screens, desks and computer terminals are reconfiguring into emergency mode as we walk into the room. “It’s like something out of a Star Trek movie,” enthuses Daryl, pointing to the desks and computers that are rising up so that the students can monitor their terminals from a standing position.”
“Years of industry research suggest that in an emergency situation people work best when they are standing up,” Daryl explains.
The student team prevents a virtual spill from happening in one of the pipes in the pilot plant and the mock crisis is averted.
Second year chemical engineering undergraduate George Spence-Jones is part of the demonstration team in the pilot plant. George tells me he wants to be a process systems engineer when he graduates, designing chemical plants like the one we are in. He says the pilot plant is already providing valuable insights into his future career.
“As part of our studies, we carried out an inspection of the pilot plant and one of the major things that I’ve learnt is that there may be a number of unforeseen challenges that come up during the construction phase that may impact on the design,” explains George. “For instance, we had to update the pilot plant’s schematics because we discovered discrepancies between the designs and the actual layout of the plant, due to space constraints. Apparently, this happens all the time when plants are being built. It felt good to be involved in tasks that I might actually do in my career.”
The opening of this plant could not have come at a better time for Imperial undergraduates. In April, the government announced a £1 billion initiative to develop carbon capture and storage technology, through a competition to design the first workable carbon capture plant for gas-fired power stations. The project has the potential to create 10,000 jobs in industry, and researchers from Imperial’s Energy Future’s Lab will be involved in the underpinning research that will help to make the government’s vision a reality. It strikes me that graduates like George could be at the forefront of this new UK industry.
“Absolutely,” agrees Daryl. “The pilot plant gives our students a headstart because they’ll be learning all the latest technologies and processes behind carbon capture, long before the first plants are built for industry.”
In the future, we may be able to mitigate the impact of industrial-scale power plants on the climate, by capturing CO2 using similar technology to that used in this pilot plant. A vast network of pipes could pump the extracted gas into depleted oil and gas reservoirs under the North Sea, where it would be safely stored for millions of years.
At Imperial’s plant, the process works by separating 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per day from other emissions. As this plant is a training facility, the CO2 is simply separated from the other gases and then mixed in again as part of a continuous demonstration cycle, rather than being pumped underground.
I ask Daryl to show me how the CO2 is separated. We leave the control room and head back into the pilot plant to a glass viewing portal in the piping to watch the CO2 extraction taking place. The CO2 gas mixture bubbles up an ‘absorber column’. It is collected by a water-based solution containing the chemical monoethanolamine (MEA), which is trickling down the column in the opposite direction. At the base of the column, the CO2- rich MEA is pumped to an adjacent ‘stripper column’, which heats the MEA, so that the CO2 can be collected and reused again in the demonstration.
As we wander around the plant, Daryl points out some of the other features including video surveillance cameras and more than 250 sensors, some wireless and others that are powered by excess energy generated by the plant. Together, they form a network that relays information in real time to students, so that they can monitor anything from temperature to liquid pressure. The plant also features a wide variety of advanced control and instrumentation technology, so that the students who train here will be equipped to work with a range of different plant systems and technologies.
Another novel feature is that students can use their iPhones and iPads to access information from the sensors, video equipment and computers, so they don’t have to be in the control room to run the plant.
“In the near future, engineers will be able to use technology like iPads to work offsite to solve problems and monitor situations. We want our students to benefit from that experience before they even set foot in a real plant,” says Daryl.
As my tour with Daryl ends, I ask him how it felt to see the students finally in the plant. “It feels like all the hard work that everyone has put into the project over the last two years is justified, now that the students are taking control of the pilot plant. When you see students quickly learning how to operate a plant in a crisis, or understanding in more detail the challenges involved in constructing such a complex structure like this, it underlines just how capable our undergraduates are. If this is the future of chemical engineering, we are in safe hands,” he adds.
— Colin Smith, Communications and Development
Dr Daryl Williams takes us on a tour of Imperial’s Carbon Capture Pilot Plant