Carbon capture plant in the heart of London helps teach the fundamentals of a greener industrial future
01 December 2023
For more than a decade, a one of its kind carbon capture pilot plant has been operating in the heart of central London. The unique plant, a partnership between Imperial College London and ABB, has seen more than 4,500 students gain hands-on experience and training on the latest real-life technologies and solutions since it opened in 2012.
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A newly signed 10-year contract between the university and the technology giant will see the plant continue to train the net-zero workforce, engineers, and scientists of the future. Hazardex Editor Alistair Hookway visited the pilot plant to find out more.
One of the world’s top 10 universities1, Imperial College London has a focus on science, engineering, business, and medicine. Around 59% of its students are from outside the UK and represent around 140 countries. The university is also host to the dedicated carbon capture pilot plant, the only teaching facility of its kind in the world which uses over 250 instruments and sensors to measure and relay data to a distributed control system, replicating realistic operating conditions.
The partnership between Imperial College and ABB, which has recently been renewed for a further 10 years, aims to equip today’s students with the skills needed to run tomorrow’s industrial processes by demonstrating how the latest technology can help to optimise plant performance and safely manage emergency situations in real-life applications. The collaboration also gives the university access to advanced control and instrumentation technology that is currently in use in process plants around the world.
“Extending the partnership with Imperial College allows us to offer students practical training to prepare them for a career in industry,” said Simon Wynne, Head of Energy Industries, ABB UK & Ireland. “A report by EngineeringUK2 says that for the UK to meet emissions targets by 2050, there needs to be a workforce, with the right STEM backgrounds, ready to respond to the energy transition challenge.”
Teaching the fundamentals of a greener industrial future
The pilot plant is being used as a key teaching facility to help develop the next generation of engineers and create a workforce capable of tackling climate issues through methods such as carbon capture and storage.
According to a report by S&P Global3, carbon capture and storage (CCS) can help decarbonise industry, reduce emissions and reach net zero, while the Global CCS Institute says in 2022 there was a 44 percent increase in the number of CCS facilities around the world compared with the previous year4. Earlier this year, the UK Government outlined its Powering Up Britain policy. This series of net-zero pledges, including £20 billion of funding to unlock private investment and jobs in CCS, aims to deliver an energy system with cleaner, more affordable energy sources.
A major issue affecting the carbon capture and storage sector, as it is with many industries, is the well-known skills shortage. The skills gap was a key reason behind the idea to establish a carbon capture pilot plant at Imperial College. The university and ABB saw it as an ideal opportunity to raise awareness among chemical engineering graduates of the benefits of a career in control and instrumentation engineering.
The plant has proven to be a great shop window for presenting the opportunities available in chemical and process engineering, with around 300 students having access to the plant every year. Even undergraduate students are able to get to grips with the latest technologies in the plant, something which is unique globally for academic institutions. On top of this, students from other universities in the UK and abroad, such as the US, China, and South Korea, visit the plant to gain valuable experience. The hands-on learning that can be achieved means that when students graduate, they are already well equipped to enter the industry and capable of contributing early on in their careers.
Estimates from EngineeringUK indicate that the UK still faces a yearly shortfall of 203,000 skilled engineers. If this is not addressed, it will potentially have a widespread impact on everything from innovation through to economic growth.
Part of the problem is that the contribution that engineering makes to society often gets taken for granted and goes largely un-noticed. ABB says if we are to rebuild the manufacturing base of the UK, we need to re-establish the awareness of the important contribution that engineering makes to people’s everyday lives. The UK needs to increase its base of skilled engineers if it is to grow its manufacturing sector towards its potential, it adds. The company believes that the pilot plant supports education by giving tomorrow’s engineers hands-on exposure to real-life technology and brings the real world into the classroom.
“When we started the partnership with ABB, the aim was to encourage more people to go into and stay in chemical engineering,” said Dr Colin Hale, Senior Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London. “One of the ways to do this was to set up this carbon capture plant so we could enthuse students to follow through on the environmental topics they have learnt previously. ABB shares this collective vision.”
“During my time in the carbon capture pilot plant, I have actively participated in the operation of the process, gaining a deeper understanding of the development and application of the technology,” said Yiheng Shao, fourth year undergraduate student at Imperial College London. “This experience has also bolstered my confidence in the role of carbon capture in achieving net-zero goals.”
The carbon capture plant, which is spread over four floors, uses an extensive array of the same products and systems that can be found in use across a broad range of industrial applications. From a measurement perspective, around 250 instruments and analysers measuring parameters including temperature, pressure, flow, level, and pH, are fed to Distributed Control System (DCS), which forms the heart of the plant’s control room. The DCS automatically controls and coordinates all aspects of the plant process, which is then visualised on displays in the Control Room where students can monitor and intervene if necessary.
The plant has been deliberately designed to use more instruments than you’d find on a typical industrial plant in order to give students a fully rounded understanding of different measurement techniques and the impact they can have on measured values. For example, electromagnetic and swirl flowmeters are used in one part of the plant to enable students to compare the different techniques and the impact this can have on assessing plant performance.
In a similar way, the plant also uses a variety of communications protocols, including Foundation Fieldbus, Profibus DP, Profibus PA and Wireless HART, to relay data from the instruments to the plant control system. Again, the aim here is to provide students with a full understanding of the variety of options they may encounter in their future careers and enable them to evaluate the merits and potential drawbacks of each one.
Over its lifetime, the plant has undergone some major changes in terms of digitalisation. It reflects recent developments in digital service technology, with the addition of digital service software tools for measurement devices and a new verification and condition monitoring platform. The condition monitoring platform is an on premise & cloud-based smart ecosystem which connects the physical and digital world and sends data from the field straight to a phone, tablet or other device. Together, these tools are used to teach students about the extended possibilities for device optimisation and maintenance. Using the software, they can access and interrogate data on instrument status and identify in advance any potential issues that could affect measurement performance or result in unplanned downtime.
A key challenge for process operators will often be around managing the sheer volume of instruments that are likely to be installed on any given plant. Many plants will typically feature hundreds or even thousands of devices, some of which may be installed in hard to reach or hazardous areas.
To teach the skills needed to handle device management, the plant uses digital service tools to demonstrate the possibilities for remote monitoring and optimisation of instrument performance. The verification and condition monitoring platform used in the plant was developed to meet the growing desire for a way to verify instrument performance, which is key for ensuring continued accuracy and reduced downtime, as well as meeting regulatory and quality management system requirements.
The tool verifies the condition and performance of the device under test, comparing its current performance against the original fingerprint of the device taken when it was shipped from the factory. In this way, all verifications performed in the field can be compared with the fingerprint data and any previous tests to ensure device performance has not degraded.
An added complication in many applications will also be the diversity of the instruments being used. Devices will often be of different makes and ages and will frequently use different operating principles, making gathering and analysing data difficult. This can particularly be the case when trying to assess the maintenance status of a particular device or group of devices.
The plant also utilises an asset performance management (APM) tool that is used to teach students how to gather and analyse diagnostic data from instruments. The solution verifies device diagnostic data remotely via a developed platform, without interrupting current measurement tasks. Based on a prescribed schedule, it collects data remotely from field devices to conduct condition monitoring. Using the tool, students can gain an insight into how the data can be used to plan service operations, as well as order spare part orders and device replacement.
Another example of a digital tool used by the plant is the QR code on the CO2 gas analyser. By scanning this code with a smartphone, an operator can send diagnostic data to an expert who can analyse it and advise on potential fixes, opening new possibilities for troubleshooting and fault resolution.
The Imperial College courses make full use of the technology on the plant to provide students with knowledge covering everything from running different experiments and process scenarios through to handling alarms and responding to process emergencies. Students are able to work with the technologies, using the same functions and interactions as engineering teams responsible for the operation and maintenance of real-life process plants.
While the plant is primarily used as a way of teaching about carbon capture, many of the fundamental aspects of its operation can also be used to provide students with the skills needed to run other types of process plants. By providing a realistic environment for students to both observe and operate process technologies, the plant provides a valuable way of equipping them with the skills they will need in an engineering career.
Drawing talented personnel to the industrial sectors is a constant struggle that is made worse by an ageing labour force and growing competition from the tech industry. ABB believes the key to hiring the workforce of the future will be to enhance the job of the operator for example, with cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to better represent the traits, skills, and expectations of that workforce.
The younger generations are more adept at using the internet; they look up information online rather than in paper manuals. They flick between tailored web content, apps, and social network feeds. They are also far more environmentally conscious, looking for sustainable businesses, which is another point. Organisations need to change now if they hope to draw in these generations.
The operator's function must change to accommodate the innate skills and real-world experiences of the workforce of the future. An operator's work can be "augmented" to provide a more immersive, digitally enhanced, and rewarding experience by utilising cutting-edge technology like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and sophisticated analytics.
For instance, increasing autonomy within the DCS will free up more time for the next generation of operators to concentrate on daily operations. Instead, they may focus on more relevant projects like finding methods to boost production or ways to save energy and carbon emissions through continuous process optimisation utilising data and advanced analytics.
There are many aspects to the skills shortage in the UK at the moment, from getting young people to enter the profession, through to training existing engineers in new approaches and new technologies. The increased use of Carbon Capture and Storage in hard to abate industries as part of the energy transition, for example, will require new skillsets to be developed in order to maximise its potential as a way of reducing carbon emissions.
The Imperial College facility is a great example of the value of hands-on teaching as a way of equipping people with the skills they will need to develop their careers. While theoretical learning is great for teaching the fundamentals, the physical nature of engineering means that the most effective teaching enables people to learn by doing, using technology, and seeing the results of their actions in a real-life context. For this reason, the Imperial College plant is also used both by academic institutions from around the world and also leading industrial companies as a teaching facility, with students and delegates sent to London as part of their teaching and training courses.