Fred Starr recollects - Who are the responsibles?

Materials World magazine
29 Jan 2020

Fred Starr considers the process of investigations and laying down blame.

The title isn’t a misprint. It is how EU management spoke at one of its premier research establishments, when looking for who to blame for an administrative cock up. It is probably a straight read across from their own languages, but is quite profound. In English, we would say ‘Who is responsible?’, the implication being there is only one person or one organisation that has caused the mess.

The thought came to me when reading the article by Jeffrey Stephen Jones on the value of failure investigation (Materials World, August 2019, page 24), and the follow up letter by Tim Carter, an independent failure investigator. At British Gas, I carried out failure investigation of equipment in steam reforming plants, so I have some insight.

Metallurgical detectives?

Jones and Carter wrote as though the only thing a materials person can do is to get the broken bits back to the lab, to then pronounce on the failure mechanism. Elsewhere, however, Carter showed in an article titled Classic wear failures revisited, published on the MechChemAfrica website, that it is the whole job that counts, if future problems are to be avoided.

I agree – sorting out failures on a steam reforming plant needed an all-encompassing approach, with the materials investigator being there at all stages. Steam reforming, now used across the world to make hydrogen, was taken up by British Gas in a big way in the 1960s to make town gas. The chemical engineering sector was suddenly overwhelmed with orders. It was a technology not only new to the gas industry, but to designers, equipment suppliers and fabricators. It was not just people like me, at the sharp end in the control rooms, who were at the bottom of the learning curve.

Did I mention that my first job in in the gas industry was at Hitchin, to actually run a steam reformer? It tells you how desperate was British Gas to bring onboard likely looking people, from any reasonable background, to run these plants. It was risky, throwing us in at the deep end. One of my workmates, when trying out the water treatment system, put neat hydrogen chloride into the boilers. Another time, an ex-Cambridge man drained the lube oil off a diesel engine while it was still running. My own claim to fame was to trip out the generator that supplied power to the steam reformer pumps and fans. It triggered an instantaneous and weeklong shutdown, jeopardising gas supplies across East Anglia. Nevertheless, I picked up enough about reformers by the time I found myself back in metallurgy, doing failure investigation. What went on at the plant at Southall in West London showed how complex matters could be.

Determining blame

We were called in because the expansion loops connecting a heat exchanger to the tubes of the steam reformer cracked after two years of operation. The big square-shaped loops, made of low alloy steel tubing, were welded onto the stainless steel reformer tubes. With an inlet temperature of around 630°C – much higher than one might have expected – cracking was inevitable. Dopy metallurgists? More importantly, the 15m-long tubes in the reformer had not been able to expand and contract freely, putting excessive strain on the expansion loops. Southall personnel and the plant contractor should have spotted that before the plant was started up. On that first start, the plant must have been, quite literally, groaning with pain. Why wasn’t it noticed?

I was brought in at a fairly late stage after they had freed off the reformer tubes, cut out the bad welds, and re-welded the loops back into place. I was horrified and told the plant manager that the loops would have been so distorted that the pipes would crack again. I convinced them to close down the plant for an inspection. As expected, we found serious cracking on the loop corners.

Protecting the guilty

At the time, I shared a house in London with a group of chemical engineers, from different companies but all of my age. By coincidence, it turned out that one of them had designed the heat exchanger, and it was his attempt to err on the safe side that had resulted in the excessive temperatures. This was not picked up by his more experienced colleagues. He and I had a good laugh about it, and I said nothing back at British Gas. So who, of all the parties, was really to blame?

I will close, however, by agreeing that any investigation must use the capabilities that lie in the backroom. From embarrassing and costly experience, I know that. Something for another recollection, perhaps?