We need a better t-shirt

Materials World magazine
3 Oct 2015

Fred Starr recollects...We need a better t-shirt

Was it the feeling that metallurgists were a rather dull bunch and taken for granted by the rest of the engineering profession, or was it the prospect of more money elsewhere that led me to drop the subject as soon as I got my degree? There was certainly an attraction in being a shift engineer on the most advanced gas-making plant in Britain. It looked like a refinery – making gas from a light oil called naphtha. As with any plant of its type, the various units, boilers, naphtha heaters, steam reformer and catalyst vessels were fully integrated. In theory, to boost gas output, all that was needed was an increase in naphtha flow to the reactors. Then, in theory, all the rest of the plant would begin working in concert. In fact, to get the best out of it, one needed to twiddle with all the controls, and have the courage to let temperatures start climbing. As a metallurgist, knowing what the equipment could take, and having faith in the plant designers, I knew that any temperature overshoot would not last long. So I was one of the first to get the plant working as it should. 

Despite the need to twiddle, it seemed miraculous for the equipment to be in such dynamic balance. When I switched back to metallurgy, where most of my time was spent among chemical engineers and heat exchange specialists, I came to realise how it was done. Although the design of chemical plants was a calculation-based procedure, most of it was underpinned by rules of thumb about rates of mass transfer, the effectiveness of heat exchangers, allowable pressure drops, turbine isentropic efficiencies, etc. By 1980, the mathematical part, known as process flow analysis, had been taken over by computer programs. The heuristic rules of thumb remained secrets of the cognoscenti. If these were not right, a process flow analysis was classic rubbish in, rubbish out.

My last proper job, at the EU’s Institute for Energy in the Netherlands, was back to chemical engineering. They knew me of old as a metallurgist, but more importantly as someone who knew something about the gasification of coal at high pressure. Our team worked on several approaches to making hydrogen from coal, while capturing CO2, in the approved environmentally acceptable manner. We all gained from one another, and I did some process design myself. I am most proud of my CRAPPY Coal Project, where we were inevitably quizzed on the acronym. In truth, the process was intended to use low melting point, high-ash coals. Coals that a sensible power plant operator would regard as cheap, but ‘crap’.

Chemical engineering is one of the best-paid technical professions, having the confidence to laugh at itself. One t-shirt proclaims that, ‘We do precision guesswork – based on unreliable data – provided by those of questionable knowledge.’ Another shows a typical chemical plant diagram, representing equipment and flows, confirming the wearer to be a qualified chemical engineer. Only such as they can read the hieroglyph.

With our own profession, there is still a diffidence about metallurgy, a reluctance to broadcast our existence. It’s made even worse by us now being just one facet of materials science, a subject which didn’t exist when I was at university. So it’s not surprising that our t-shirts don’t say anything very funny or striking. Just a pedestrian ‘Metallurgical Engineer’ or similar. At the very least we should try to raise a smile among ourselves. Would you wear these at your next conference?