Fred Starr recollects the Brexit vote

Materials World magazine
2 Aug 2016

It’s all over now

Fred Starr recollects…

That was the title of the Rolling Stones’ first hit record, which can be thankfully applied to the EU referendum. But, like the end of a long and tumultuous love affair, the EU and Britain must live with the consequences. 

Bringing Europe together has been driven by technology as well as politics. The EU began as the European Steel and when it morphed into the European Economic Community, the Common Agricultural Policy got the most attention, but factory farming is as much an industry as metal bashing. Technology brought Europe closer in the 1970s, when the escalation in oil prices inspired the drive to make oil and gas from coal. High-temperature corrosion was critical to the new concepts and I was determined that Europe should not blindly follow American efforts. As a good European, I surreptitiously passed on what was happening in the British Gas processes.

Later on, in building a closed-cycle gas turbine demonstrator, we would have been snookered without the Belgians, who, after the British company dropped out, made the very high-temperature tubing we needed. Nevertheless, there was a good outcome for Britain from this EU programme. I had been stiff with worry about the recuperator, whose dimensions and cost promised to dwarf everything else on the demonstrator. Salvation came in the form of a printed circuit heat exchanger (PCHE), which brought the recuperator down to the size of a wood pallet. At £30,000, it was the first major sale of a PCHE in Europe and must have helped with the establishment of Heatric Ltd, UK, which now sells PCHEs to anyone wanting a compact heat exchanger capable of withstanding oil field pressures. This is how the EU can work in speeding innovation.       

Global warming has got the EU Commission’s support for energy conservation, renewables, dieselisation of the European car fleet, carbon capture and, in the longer term, the move to the hydrogen economy. It was through carbon capture and storage and hydrogen that, in 2004, as a visiting scientist, I joined the EU’s Joint Research Centre, at Petten, in the Netherlands.

I came to see how policy in the EU comes about. Petten’s focus was on clean energy, so we went down to Brussels for a big discussion on ultrasupercritical power generation. The initiative came from the German, French and Swedish power plant manufacturers. They wanted continuing support from the EU Commission for more efficient coal-fired steam plants. A laudable aim indeed. But I got up and asked, had we all forgotten that power plants have to cycle, being able to change output in response to demand? To me, it didn’t seem likely that sophisticated super-efficient plant would have that capability. There was a moment of stunned silence, which I took to be cogitation on my words of wisdom. No way! Afterwards, I was quietly told that this was a breach of protocol. Scientific underlings like me were there to observe, not to interject. Policy was dictated by the big boys.

Three years later, there was another review of ultrasupercritical R&D. I was asked to comment in writing. In a nutshell, I stated that I was extremely worried about the prospects for success. Wasn’t the ultrasupercritical, 55% efficiency claim based on an unthinking extrapolation of what had been previously accomplished by power plant designers? And, given a steam pressure of 340bar, shouldn’t the stress rupture target be 200MPa, rather than 100MPa, which was barely adequate for current steam plant? Most concerning of all was the proposal to use age hardened superalloys for superheater tubing, given that the age hardening temperatures were similar to the likely tube temperature of 750–780°C.  

When my memo was eventually read by Brussels, it caused a minor explosion, before being quietly forgotten. The ultrasupercritical R&D caravan rolled on for a few more years, but in Europe at least, the 700°C steam plant is dead. But good always comes of well-funded, hardware-geared research. New data and novel equipment emerge. Original concepts come into being. That’s how we should look at our journey with the EU. Money fruitfully enjoyed, not wasted. Bridges built, physically and metaphorically. And, as with any romance, its necessary anguish and heartbreak will be a passport to new and exciting affairs.