Tag: technology

Inside the machine shop

A klaxon sounds and a crane big enough to lift 160 tonnes moves slowly across the inside of a cavernous warehouse. Below, a team of engineers stand around a turbine spindle the size of a double decker bus but weighing four times as much at 65 tonnes, waiting for the crane’s descent.

Around them, other engineers work on similar-sized equipment. One uses a wrench the size of an arm. Another programs a computerised lever to carefully strip millimetres from a piece of steel. It’s just a normal day inside Drax Power Station’s machine workshop.

For the last 15 years, this workshop has been refurbishing, repairing and manufacturing tools and equipment for use at the power station – a fact that sets Drax apart from other stations like it.

“We’re envied by a few stations because we do most things in-house,” says Turbine Engineer and head of the workshop, Andrew Storr. “We’re leagues in front of everyone else in the UK because we’ve got our own manufacturing and machining facility. We can do all this work on site. We’re not relying on other people.”

Storr set up the workshop in 2001 after being asked to reverse engineer a replacement set of governor relays (components that help regulate the flow of steam going into the turbines) for one of Drax’s steam turbines. Today, it’s a thriving centre of activity filled with heavy-duty machinery and ingenious engineers.

A look inside the workshop

“When you’re manufacturing spares it’s not a matter of going down to our machine shop and just saying ‘make one of those’. You’ve got to have the correct grade of material, the correct size, the correct certification for the material – you can’t just have a scrappy piece of steel that you find. It’s got to have paperwork with it to say it’s certified up to whatever it’s supposed to be,” says Storr.

Turbine bearings need to be bored to size using a horizontal borer that very accurately shaves out the lining of the inner bearing. Getting it right is incredibly important, explains Storr: “If it’s made too large it causes the turbine shaft to vibrate. If it’s made too small the bearing becomes too hot and the white metal will melt and pour out the bearing. We need to avoid both of these issues at all cost.”

The inside of the turbine blading needs to have seal strips administered by hand as they’re delicately made to limit any damage to the spinning shaft should they touch each other. Despite the wealth of equipment at the disposal of the team in the shop, success depends on the skill of the engineers using it.

There are three 160-tonne cranes in the turbine hall, each installed before the turbines were built. This meant the construction companies who erected the turbines could lift all heavy components into place with ease. “Due to their size they move slowly. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the largest hook to travel from the ground all the way to the top,” says Storr.

“In mechanical engineering it’s sometimes necessary to fit one part inside another, and once these parts are assembled they must stay locked together and not come apart,” Storr says. One way the team does this is by shrinking some components, and for this they use liquid nitrogen.

The team places the component that needs to fit inside another into a bath of liquid nitrogen and shrink it at -190 degrees Celsius. Once shrunk, the team assembles the two, placing the now smaller component into the larger one. “Eventually the inner part warms up to ambient temperature and grows in size, making the fit very tight and preventing them from coming apart,” explains Storr.

In the past, Drax would send the work they now do in the machine shop to companies off site. And because all other power stations in the area would do the same thing, wait times would often be long and the quality of the output could vary.

“When we do it in-house I can keep my eye on it,” says Storr. “I can re-prioritise things depending on what is going to be needed back on the turbine first – we’ve got 100% control over it. We can make sure everything’s hunky-dory.”

How space tech helps forests

Satellite view of the Earth's forests

Can you count the number of trees in the world? Accurately, no – there are just too many, spread out over too vast an area. But if we could, what would we gain? For one, we would get a clearer picture of what’s happening in our planet’s forests.

They’re a hugely important part of our lives – not only for the resource they provide, but for their role in absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2). So properly understanding their scale and what is happening to them – whether increasing or decreasing – and designing strategies to manage this change is hugely important.

The trouble is, they exist on such a vast scale that we traditionally haven’t been able to accurately monitor them en masse. Thanks to space technologies, that’s changing.

A working forest

The view from up there

As far back as World War II, aerial imaging was being used to monitor the environment. In addition to using regular film cameras mounted to aeroplanes to follow troops on the ground, infrared film was used to identify green vegetation and distinguish it from camouflage nets.

As satellite and remote sensing technology developed through the 20th century, so too did our understanding of our planet. Satellites were used to map the weather, monitor the sea, and to create topological maps of the earth, but they weren’t used to track the Earth’s forests in any real detail.

But in 2021 the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch Biomass, a satellite that will map the world’s forests in unprecedented detail using the first ever P-band radar to be placed in Earth orbit. This synthetic aperture radar penetrates the forest canopy to capture data on the density of tree trunks and branches. It won’t just be able to track how much land a forest covers, but how much wood exists in it. In short, the Biomass will be able to ‘weigh’ the world’s forests.

Over the course of its five-year mission, it will produce 3D maps every six months, giving scientists data on forest density across eight growth cycles.

The satellite is part of ESA’s Earth Explorers programme, which operates a number of satellites using innovative sensor technology to answer environmental questions. And it’s not the only entity carrying out research of this sort.

California-based firm Planet has 149 micro-satellites measuring just 10cm x 30cm in orbit around the Earth, each of which beams back around three terabytes of data every day. To put it another way, each satellite photographs about 2.5 million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface on a daily basis.

The aim of capturing this information is to provide organisations with data to help them answer the question: what is changing on Earth? When it comes to forests, this includes identifying things like illegal logging and forest fires, but the overall aim is to create a searchable, expansive view of the world that enables people to generate useful insights.

Rocket flying over the earth

Keeping the world green

All this data is not only vital for developing our understanding of how the world is changing, it is vital for the development of responsible, sustainable forestry practices.

From 2005 to 2015, the UN rolled out the REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), which, among other functions, allows countries to earn the right to offset CO2 emissions – for example through forestry management practices. Sophisticated satellite measurement techniques not only let governments know the rate of deforestation or afforestation in their respective countries, it can also help them monitor, highlight and encourage responsible forestry.

Satellite technology is increasingly growing the level of visibility we have of our planet. But more than just a clearer view on what is happening, it allows us the opportunity to see why and how it is happening. And it’s with this information that real differences in our future can be made.

4 amazing uses of bioenergy

Large modern aircraft view of the huge engine and chassis, the light of the sun

Bioenergy is the world’s largest renewable energy source, providing 10% of the world’s primary supply. But more than just being a plentiful energy source, it can and should be a sustainable one. And because of this, it’s also a focus for innovation.

Biomass currently powers 4.8% of Great Britain’s electricity through its use at Drax Power Station and smaller power plants, but this isn’t the only way bioenergy is being used. Around the world people are looking into how it can be used in new and exciting ways.

algal blooms, green surf beach on the lakePowering self-sufficient robots 

What type of bioenergy?

Algae and microscopic animals

How’s it being used?

To power two aquatic robots with mouths, stomachs and an animal-type metabolism. Designed at the University of Bristol, the 30cm Row-Bot is modelled on the water boatman insect. The other, which is smaller, closer resembles a tadpole, and moves with the help of its tail.

Both are powered by microbial fuel cells – fuel cells that use the activity of bacteria to generate electricity – developed at the University of the West of England in Bristol. As they swim, the robots swallow water containing algae and microscopic animals, which is then used by their fuel cell ‘stomachs’ to generate electricity and recharge the robots’ batteries. Once recharged, they row or swim to a new location to look for another mouthful.

Is there a future?

It’s hoped that within five years the Row-Bot will be used to help clean up oil spills and pollutants such as harmful algal bloom. There are plans to reduce the tadpole bot to 0.1mm so that huge shoals of them can be dispatched to work together to tackle outbreaks of pollutants.

multi-coloured water ketttlesPurifying water

What’s used?

Human waste

How’s it being used?

The Omni Processor, a low cost waste treatment plant funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, does something incredible: it turns sewage into fresh water and electricity.

It does this by heating human waste to produce water vapour, which is then condensed to form water. This water is passed through a purification system, making it safe for human consumption. Best of all, it does this while powering itself.

The solid sludge left over by the evaporated sewage is siphoned off and burnt in a steam engine to produce enough electricity to process the next batch of waste.

Is there a future?

The first Omni Processor was manufactured by Janicki Bioenergy in 2013 and has been operating in Dakar, Senegal, since May 2015. A second processor, which doubles the capacity of the first, is currently operating in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, US and is expected to be shipped to West Africa during 2017.

Closer to home and Drax Power Station, a similar project is already underway. Northumbrian Water was the first in the UK to use its sludge to produce renewable power, but unlike the Omni Processor, it uses anaerobic digestion to capture the methane and carbon dioxide released by bacteria in sludge to drive its gas turbines and generate power. Any excess gas generated is delivered back to the grid, resulting in a total saving in the utility company’s carbon footprint of around 20% and also multi-millions of pounds of savings in operating costs.

Jet plane leaves contrail in a sunset beautiful sky, copy space for textFlying across the Atlantic

What’s used?


How’s it being used?

Most tobacco is grown with a few factors in mind – taste and nicotine content being the most important. But two of the 80 acres of tobacco grown at Briar View Farms in Callands, Virginia, US, are used to grow tobacco of a very different sort. This tobacco can power aeroplanes.

US biofuel company Tyton BioEnergy Systems is experimenting with varieties of tobacco dropped decades ago by traditional growers because of poor flavour or low nicotine content. The low-nicotine varieties need little maintenance, are inexpensive to grow and flourish where other crops would fail.

The company is turning this tobacco into sustainable biofuel and last year filed a patent for converting oil extracted from plant biomass into jet fuel.

Is there a future?

In the hope of creating a promising source of renewable fuel, scientists are pioneering selective breeding techniques and genetic engineering to increase tobacco’s sugar and seed oil content.

In 2013, the US Department of Energy gave a $4.8m grant to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with UC Berkeley and the University of Kentucky, to research the potential of tobacco as a biofuel.

Fukushima Japan

Powering repopulation of a disaster zone

What’s used?

Wood exposed to radiation by the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns

How’s it being used?

Last year it was announced that German energy company Entrade Energiesysteme AG, will set up biomass power generators in the Fukushima prefecture that will generate electricity using the lightly irradiated wood of the area.

It’s hoped they will help Japan’s attempts to repopulate the region following the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. Entrade says its plants can reduce the mass of lightly irradiated wood waste by 99.5%, which could help Japanese authorities reduce the amount of contaminated material while at the same time generating sustainable energy.

Is there a future?

The prefecture aims to generate all its power from renewable energy by 2040 through a mix of bioenergy and solar power.

How much does it cost to charge my iPhone?

It’s difficult to imagine life without electricity. Its ubiquity means it’s easy to forget the incredible feats of science, engineering, and infrastructure that allow us to undertake a task as simple as plugging in our smartphones.

In fact, so expansive are the nationwide infrastructure networks that lie beyond the wall socket, keeping a top-of-the-range mobile phone charged for a year can cost as much as… 67p.

To work out how much electricity an appliance uses there’s a relatively straightforward equation we can follow of power (kilowatt, kW) x time (hours used) = energy transferred (kilowatt-hour, kWh). To then work out how much that costs in real terms we need to take the wattage of the appliance (worked out in kilowatts as this is the metric electricity tariffs are measured in), multiply that by the number of hours it is being used for, then multiply that figure (kWh) by your energy tariff (£).

In the case of an iPhone, it works out like this: a typical iPhone charger is 5W (0.005 kW) and a full charge from empty takes a maximum of three hours (a conservative estimate). The average electricity tariff in the UK is 15p per kWh, which leads to an equation that looks like this:

0.005 x 3 x 0.15 = £0.00225 a day

And if we assume that an iPhone owner might fully charge their phone roughly 300 times a year, the total annual sum amounts to a princely 67.5p.

There’s no other way of looking at this – it’s a very low number. But it’s important to think about this number in scale. Extrapolate it across the number of devices in the country and it grows significantly.

A 2016 study on UK smartphone owners suggests three quarters of all adults have smartphones, which would put the country total somewhere in the region of 40 million. Per day, that’s 600 MWh of electricity needed to power their smartphones. That’s the equivalent of 200 MW of power generation, or enough to power 565,000 households, for one hour.

Charger with device on wooden desk

How much electricity do my other appliances use?

Unfortunately, not all appliances are as modern, efficient and cost effective as your average smartphone. In fact, when it comes to household appliances, charging your Apple iPhone, Samsung, Sony or Windows Phone device is one of the least power-hungry activities you can undertake.

A bigger offender is your fridge-freezer, but not because they need a lot of electricity to run. Instead, it comes down to the fact it is plugged in and drawing power for a significant amount of time. A fridge freezer is plugged in for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and even though modern fridge freezers have good energy efficiency mechanisms to limit their usage, they can very easily use 427 kWh a year, leading to an annual cost of over £50.

To put that into perspective, here’s how much your other household items cost per hour according to the same equation used earlier.

How much does it cost to charge an iphone

What’s new?

As our homes, workplaces and industries have become more energy efficient, the country as a whole is using less power. Nowhere is this more evident than in our lighting – today, the common LED lightbulb uses just 17% of the power needed for an incandescent lightbulb of equivalent brightness.

The news has been full of stories about how much more power 4K TVs use compared to high definition TVs. But because most of us buy a TV once every decade or so, replacing your 2007 1080p full HD TV with the UK’s best-selling 4K model and watching it for an hour will actually use around 70% less power.

This continued trend towards efficiency has had a marked effect on the country’s use of power. In March 2017, the government published its latest electricity demand data for the UK, showing the country’s power needs falling all the way through to 2020.

But then something interesting happens. From 2026 the forecast shows us beginning to use increasingly more power than we are due to in 2017. To the point where by 2035, we’re using more power than we are today – 19% more. Why is this?

One possibility is electric cars. In 2015, electric vehicles (EVs) consumed 0.25 TWh of power, but that’s set to grow significantly. In its Future Energy Scenarios report published in 2016, National Grid projected EVs will consume 19 TWh in 2035, but it has already said it believes its projections might be understated. In short, the EV revolution could drive demand far higher, which leads to the question, ‘Where is all of this extra power going to come from?’.

Charging an electric car

Understanding the smart home 

Our future energy needs are not just going to be met by more electricity generation capacity, they will also be assisted by something closer to home. With the introduction of smart meters, pinpointing the devices and appliances in our homes that use the most electricity will become more widespread. More than this we’ll be able to identify what time of day they’re using the most energy and when we might be able to turn them off. With this information we can optimise our usage and save money.

And while cutting down your yearly phone charging budget from 67p to 50p might not sound like much, if three quarters of the country are joining you, those pennies can quickly add up.

5 of London’s most iconic buildings made with ash

London Skyline with cranes

London’s historic relationship with its power system is clear to see in its skyline. Old decommissioned power stations, a reminder of the city’s industrial heritage, have been repurposed to house art or corporate headquarters, connecting the city’s past to its present.

But these historical buildings aren’t the only physical connection to how the city is powered. In fact, much of modern London is built using a by-product from electricity generation.

Although Drax Power Station now generates more than half its electricity using sustainable biomass, a proportion comes from coal, of which ash is a by-product. But rather than discarding this ash to landfill, Drax sells it to companies who turn it into something useful: Lytag.

Lytag is made from transforming the ash into small round pellets and then heating them to 1,100°C, creating very hard spheres of lightweight aggregate. These can be used to create high strength concrete, as well as used in filter systems, roof tiles, and sports surfaces.

Here are some of the most iconic buildings in London made using Lytag.

The Gherkin

City View of London around Liverpool Street station

The building at 30 St Mary Axe, also known as the Gherkin, is a notable feature of the capital’s skyline. But more than being a unique landmark, when constructed it was dubbed London’s ‘first ecological tall building’. It uses wind for heating and cooling, which means it uses nearly 50% less energy than comparable office buildings, and was constructed using recycled and recyclable materials where possible, including Lytag.

London City Hall

London cityscape with the Shard and the City hall

Like the Gherkin, London’s City Hall is not only a visually unique building but an energy-efficient one, too. Solar panels across its façade generate renewable electricity, while smart meters and sensors ensure the power it does use is carefully optimised – it even recycles heat generated by its computers and lights. In construction, Lytag was used in the flooring, helping the building’s overall sustainability credentials.

Heron Tower

View of a skyscraper in London from the ground up.

Lightweight Lytag aggregate formed part of the concrete used to construct the Heron Tower, which helped reduce structural loading. This City of London skyscraper was awarded an ‘Excellent’ rating from BREEAM, the world’s leading sustainability assessors. The rating owes much to the south side of the building, which is studded with an incredible 48,000 photovoltaic arrays.

St Pancras Station

St Pancras International station terminal

The recent upgrade to St Pancras involved widespread refurbishment, as well as civil and structural modifications to facilities across the station. One such modification was a 185-metre extension to create 13 new platforms for additional domestic and international services.

Wimbledon Centre Court

Wimbledon centre court

In 2006 the world’s most famous tennis court began a major overhaul. For the first time in its history, Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was to get a retractable roof that covers the whole court. But to do this it needed to undergo a five-storey redevelopment, which also increased its capacity to 15,000 spectators.

Lytag was used to create a specially formulated, water resistant concrete that anchored the additional seating and helped bring the world’s biggest tennis tournament into a new era.

More to come

Two green cranes working on a building

Although coal is fast becoming a smaller part of the UK’s electricity generation mix, Lytag remains a part of London construction. It’s currently being used in the One Bank Street development in Canary Wharf and the Pinnacle building in the City of London, which when finished will be the second tallest building in London – a noteworthy addition to the capital’s skyline.


You won’t recognise this powder but you will know what it’s used for

Chances are, wherever you’ve been today, you’ve never been further than a few feet away from gypsum. It’s equally likely, however, you don’t know what gypsum is. You might not recognise it in its raw form – a soft, chalky white mineral made up of calcium and sulphur. But you will recognise the things it’s used in: buildings, food, fertilisers – the list goes on.

It’s a hugely versatile mineral, and while it’s naturally-occurring, it’s also a by-product of electricity generation.

Where does gypsum come from?

Gypsum is formed naturally when lakes or lagoons with a high amount of calcium and sulphates evaporate. This evaporation leaves behind layers of sediments, which eventually harden into a mineral (gypsum) which can then be mined.

It’s also sometimes found on the earth’s surface, where it can give rise to spectacular natural environments like the White Sands Desert in New Mexico, or slowly crystallise underground into formations like the Cave of the Crystals in Chihuahua, Mexico.

But gypsum can also be formed as a by-product of industrial processes – electricity generation being one. When coal is used to generate electricity it releases sulphur. At Drax Power Station flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) technology removes up to 90% of that sulphur dioxide, which takes the form of gypsum – a lot of it. In 2016, 80,000 tonnes of gypsum was produced and sold by Drax.

Today that gypsum is sold to just one supplier who uses it to make plasterboard, but there are a number of varied uses for this versatile mineral.


One of gypsum’s most abiding uses in human society has been in construction. In ancient times, it was used widely for making cement, or as a construction material in its own right – the interior of the Great Pyramids of Giza are lined with gypsum.

Today, it’s still a prominent feature of the building industry. Gypsum is the key component in plasterboard, which is produced by passing a gypsum paste between two sheets of paper. When the paper sets, the resulting gypsum sandwich forms the tough and ubiquitous plasterboard. Today, all gypsum created at Drax Power Station is used to create plasterboard.

It’s also a core ingredient in several forms of cement making and can – in its paste form – be applied as a plaster covering for existing walls and surfaces.

nobler Wohnung in Paris - real estate


After its use in construction, gypsum’s most important historical use is as a fertiliser. Gypsum is rich in sulphur, which plants – in particular oil and legume crops – need for healthy growth (it’s the same reason why volcanic soils are particularly fertile). Gypsum’s high calcium content also helps strengthen plant cell walls and aids in the absorption of nutrients. More than just helping the plants, gypsum fertiliser can also help reduce soil toxicity and improve its structure by allowing water to be absorbed and to drain more efficiently.


Beyond its many practical uses, gypsum also has a long history in the fine arts. Gypsum in its plaster form (often called plaster of Paris, after the Montmartre hill where it was originally quarried) can be used for sculpting and decorative ornamentation.

When left in its solid form, gypsum is known as alabaster, and has been used for millennia in monumental sculpting, often as a softer alternative to marble. Alabaster sculptures and statues have been produced by ancient societies in Egypt, Syria and Byzantium.

Gypsum powder has also been used as an ingredient in colours in delicate inks used in medieval illuminations as well as common blackboard chalk.

Little hands of kid painting on the plaster soft focus.

Cooking and brewing

The presence of nutrients like calcium in gypsum makes it an important ingredient in several recipes, including in making certain kinds of tofu. But it has a more interesting role in brewing.

The taste of beer is determined in part by the ‘hardness’ of the water used in the process. The higher the mineral content in water, the harder the water. ‘Soft’ water can be used to make sweet beers like pilsners, but if you want to make a bitter beer, gypsum can be added to harden the water with its high sulphur and calcium content, which in turn strengthens the flavour.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that only naturally-occurring gypsum is used in cooking and brewing. Gypsum acquired through desulphurisation processes is only used in industrial contexts like building.

The food industry. Glass beer bottles moving on conveyor


As it is malleable and sets quickly (sometimes within just a few minutes), gypsum has proven an ideal material for sculpting casts and splints. And anyone who has braces fitted knows only too well the unpleasant feeling of a plaster mould settling over the inside of their mouths. That’s gypsum too.

With an end date fixed for coal, it’s already a diminishing form of electricity generation. This in turn means less gypsum will created as a by-product and sold to industry.

And while this means there’ll be less of a connection between what your home is built with and what powers it, it won’t mean that you’re any less connected to gypsum every day. Gypsum has been a part of life for a long time, unlike coal, it’s one that will stick around.

Getting more from less

Luke Varley

“What can we do to ensure plant integrity, increase plant efficiency and ultimately get more megawatts out of the door for less?” This is a question at the heart of Luke Varley’s work.

Varley is the lead engineer in the turbine section at Drax Power Station, a team who look after arguably the heart of the plant: the steam turbines that drive electricity generation. As well as managing day-to-day maintenance, he and a team of engineers and craftspeople within TSG deliver the major overhaul activities on the turbines to keep them running efficiently and safely.

But as the UK’s largest power station, it’s a site that needs to run all the time – any maintenance needs to fit around that consistent operation. For the most part this happens in the summer months, when electricity demand is lower and parts of the station can be temporarily shut down to carry out repairs. Even though Varley recognises there’s a large cost involved in shutting part of the plant down, it leads to longer term gains.

“We’re taking on work to improve efficiency, because the end result is we’re using less fuel to get more electricity,” he says. A small percentage increase in biomass efficiency can represent huge cost savings, he adds.

But as a relatively new fuel, biomass – in Drax’s case compressed wood pellets – presents a unique challenge for the engineers working with it.

Luke Varley

The biomass challenge

In the days when Drax ran only on coal at full load as part of a stable national grid, turbine maintenance meant facing common problems. “Where we had problems which were familiar from one hundred years of turbine history, we knew what to look for,” Varley explains.

But now the plant generates within a far more demanding network that needs flexibility and produces more than half its power using compressed wood pellets, there’s a need for greater efficiency – it means more innovative thinking and new challenges.

For example, most plants in the industry take each turbine offline to maintain it every eight-to-ten years. But using wood pellets means the turbines need to be as efficient as possible, and this means more regular inspections.

“Every four years we go back, overhaul the module and maximise its efficiency again. That’s new to the industry within the UK. Nobody else is doing that,” he says.

Despite the challenges, Varley isn’t fazed. “The technical and management challenges, they both come with experience,” he explains. His engineering experience began before his start at Drax.

“As a sixteen-year-old I walked out into the turbine hall and looked down and thought, ‘this is a different game.’”

Destined for grease

“My dad’s been in engineering all his life. He’d be building a car and I’d be dragged to a scrap man to help take an engine block out of an old car so he could use it at home,” Varley says. “I was destined to always be covered in grease.”

So when it came to beginning his career, Varley was set on what path he wanted to take. Two options presented themselves: working as a trainee draftsman in an air conditioning company or taking an apprenticeship with National Power. An early visit to Drax helped make his decision.

“Even though I’d been around engineering with my dad, as a sixteen-year-old I walked out into the turbine hall and looked down and thought, ‘this is a different game.’” He took the apprenticeship which led him to a number of power plants, but the impression of the Drax turbine hall never left him.

Drax Turbine Hall

“Later in my career I spent a lot of my time going around different power stations, and in grandness and scale I’ve never come across anything that matches what we’ve got at Drax. So when this job came about and I was asked to join, I said, ‘Sounds good to me.’”

Today, his position of getting more megawatts out of the door for less whilst ensuring safe operation of the plant is one that comes with a lot of responsibility and is built on a long history.

“The guy who was doing this job before me took a lot of pride in it. He used to say, ‘I’ve been here man and boy, I was even here when it was built and I wouldn’t have retired until I knew it was in safe hands.’”

Varley says, “I suppose that’s the best recognition I could get, really.”

The problem solver

Adam Nicholson

“One of the things I like about my job is working through the challenges we get on a daily basis and finding a solution,” explains Adam Nicholson, Process Performance Section Head at Drax Power Station.

That eagerness to find solutions makes him the ideal candidate for his current job: managing day-to-day improvements at Drax. “I’m responsible for the team which ensures the plant operates at optimum efficiency,” he says. His team make sure the turbines, boiler, emissions, combustion, and mills are not just working, but running as smoothly as possible. It’s a job that brings up constant challenges.

“It’s ultimately what I became an engineer for,” he says, “to follow that problem-solving thirst through.”

Earlier in his career, Nicholson was involved in one of the plant’s biggest problem-solving missions: converting it from running exclusively on coal to also run on compressed wood pellets. It was a unique test – one that required starting from scratch. There wasn’t a bank of existing knowledge that Nicholson and his fellow engineers could call upon.

“We did a lot of testing to learn more about the fuel,” he explains. “We had to understand how to get it to the boiler, how to process it before we put it in, how to convert the mills, and then how exactly the combustion would work.”

Some of that learning involved experimenting with unorthodox solutions to complex problems.


The dog tunnel

“One of the big problems with biomass is you can’t expose it to as high a temperature as you can coal,” Nicholson explains. This presented a challenge when it came to pulverising it.

Before fuel at the power station can be combusted, a set of mills pulverises it into a fine powder using a ring of rotating, heavy-duty balls. This fuel powder is then dried inside the mill with a mix of hot air drawn from the boiler house and cool air. But a fundamental difference between coal and biomass meant this process had to change.

“With coal the air can enter the mills at about 300 degrees. With biomass, if you get much above about 180 degrees, the biomass will set on fire,” says Nicholson. As part of the R&D phase he needed to work out a way to cool the mills down on a temporary basis. “We all took a big gulp and thought, ‘how are we going to do this?’”

Part of the problem was the existing ducts weren’t big enough to deliver enough cool air to the mills to lower their temperature to a safe range. Nicholson improvised a solution. “It was known as the dog tunnel,” he says.

If he could get a temporary, larger air supply to the mills it could provide more cool air and lower the overall temperature, allowing the testing to be conducted. So he found a company that could supply industrial flexible ducting, which he connected to a larger cold air duct and then fed through to a mill to deliver more cool air. As its informal name suggests, the result didn’t look like much, but it worked.

“It didn’t look like a finished solution, but the theory behind it was sound. For occasions like this we had to think, ‘let’s just do it, prove it, and then we can work on a permanent solution.’”

“That’s ultimately what I became an engineer for. To follow that problem-solving thirst through.”

The next challenge

Now the power station is successfully producing more than half of its electricity from biomass, Nicholson’s day-to-day responsibilities lie in ensuring safe operations and driving process efficiencies. To do this he keeps tabs on the combustion process – for example, by using thermal imaging cameras to monitor the inside of the furnace – and tweaks it to get as much energy as possible from the biomass fuel.

But at a site as large and complex as Drax there will always be new engineering challenges that require inventive thinking.

“Often you don’t know how you’re going to do something until you do a bit more work and try and understand the problem,” Nicholson says. “We’re nowhere near the end of our learning curve.”

Taming the electric beast

Gareth Newton

“It’s like a living animal, is Drax. It will break, it will fail, it will need maintenance,” says Gareth Newton. As a mechanical engineer in one of the power station’s maintenance teams, he’s a man with a closer eye on that animal than most.

And when something does need fixing or improving, it’s his job to make sure it happens. It’s a task that keeps him busy.

On top of the teams

“I’ve got a team servicing the filter fans. I’ve got a team doing a filter change on a biomass unit. Then I’ve got another company doing a pipework replacement on a discharge line for me. Somebody else is doing a service on the belt cleaners,” Newton says, listing half a typical day’s responsibilities. On any given day, he oversees a number of different teams that carry out a variety of maintenance tasks, and more often than not that list is a long one.

He’s a part of the Materials Handling team who deal with all the material arriving and leaving the power station. This includes the biomass and coal fuel coming in, and the ash, gypsum and other byproducts from the generation process going out.

It means he has a hand in the maintenance of almost all parts of the plant, from the compressed wood pellet storage domes to the boiler. With such a broad perspective of such a complex plant, he knows it’s not always the things you expect to fail that need fixing.


Monitoring the machine

“It’s a machine – it’s being used. It’s not a showpiece or something in a museum. It’s real and every now and then it will throw a gear out and stop,” he says. Those failures don’t always happen to a schedule, so when something does go wrong it can be unexpected.

“You might have a £50,000 gearbox sat in the stores ready and waiting to replace a faulty one, but it will be the £10 probe on a conveyer belt you never thought would break that fails and holds the whole system up,” he says. When something like that happens, he adds, it’s not always about having the exact tool that can fix it right there and then, it’s about thinking out of the box.

“The biggest part of this job, and I think it’s one of the biggest parts of heavy industry engineering, is not fixing or modifying things with what you’ve got,” he says. “It’s about using what you haven’t got to try and engineer your way out.”

He continues: “If you haven’t got a tool or part that you need, can you make something new, can you find a way to make it work? Or, do you even need it?”

“It’s like a living animal, is Drax. It will break, it will fail, it will need maintenance.”

Keeping your hands dirty

Newton grew up around engineering. His father ran a salvage yard and precious metals business and would bring back broken bits of machinery for the kids to fix as toys. “I’ve always had dirty hands,” he says.

It’s something that’s stuck with him. Today, even though he now spends a large proportion of his time monitoring jobs at a computer or moving between teams, it’s the practical side of the job that keeps him interested. “The best part of the job is working with your hands.”

And even though the demands of the living animal that is Drax can sometimes keep him on site longer than his working hours, it’s a beast he’s happy to look after.

“It’s a job you either love or hate. If you didn’t enjoy the engineering side you probably wouldn’t like it because there’s a lot of ingenuity and thinking on your feet needed,” he says. “But there are a lot of jobs out there that I wouldn’t want.”