ICI Billingham and Steam Reforming – The Catalyst that Saved British Gas   @ NEWCASTLE: Tyne&Wear Discovery Museum
Apr 19 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

A lecture by Dr Fred Starr FIMMM, C.Eng. It will surprise anyone younger than middle aged, that British Gas, in the 1950s seemed doomed, almost deservedly so. The world’s oldest energy conversion company, it was having to make gas from coal, using costly, filthy, toxic, manpower intensive equipment.  It is commonly held, even within the organisation, that it was only saved by the chance discovery of North Sea Gas in 1965.  The real picture is more complex.  Well before then, the Industry was fighting for its survival through the introduction of new technology.

Among the really critical developments was the widespread introduction of the steam reforming of naphtha, essentially a low grade gasoline, using a process developed by ICI Billingham. The technique involves reacting a hydrocarbon with steam at about 20 bar pressure and temperatures in excess of 800°C. Other units on this refinery type process were used to upgrade the output of the steam reformer, producing what was then called Town Gas. Unlike natural gas, which is about 95% methane, Town Gas consists of hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and monoxide.  The cost of gas manufacture was halved, meaning that the company was in good shape, and able to take advantage of the discoveries in the North Sea.

ICI Billingham had been working on steam reforming since the early thirties. Their first commercial unit suppled hydrogen to their hydrogenation plant, manufacturing aviation fuel from coal. Feedstock was the small volumes of waste hydrocarbon gases from the hydrogenation process. However Billingham’s core business was the manufacture of ammonia, using Haber Bosch reactors, in which the massive amounts of hydrogen required had to be made from coal by the rather crude water gas process.

This sufficed until the 1950s, when, as with the Gas Industry, being reliant on coal, Billingham was becoming uncompetitive. R&D at Billingham led to the development of a new catalyst, 46/1, enabling them to run steam reformers on naphtha. Area Boards in the Gas Industry quickly adopted the technology to produce Town Gas. Our first plant was at Provan in Scotland, in 1962, being built by a Stockton-on-Tees company. Within five years, 50% of the gas was being produced using steam reforming.  However, it was a short lived revolution. With the introduction of North Sea Gas, most plants were shut down by 1975.

The author worked as a shift engineer on one of the early plants at Hitchin. But because of a policy change, at the purpose built British Gas Research Station at Killingworth, he became responsible for failure investigations in the southern half of Britain. Along with the history, he will recount some of the shortcomings of the ICI process, one of which, when working as Hitchin, nearly killed him.

Visit to Mellor Mill @ MARPLE: Mellor Mill, Marple
Apr 29 @ 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Dr John Glithero is leading a visit to the archaeological dig site of Samuel Oldknow’s cotton mill at Mellor Mill, Marple.  We will gather for lunch at the Roman Lakes Tea Rooms and visit the site in the afternoon.  There will also be an opportunity to see other features nearby, including the Marple  aqueduct on the Peak Forest Canal. The site can be reached by train or car.   Further details and travel directions contact

International Early Engines Conference 2017 Newcomen & colleagues’ achievements untainted by the smokescreens of Watt @ BARNSLEY: The Ironworks, Elsecar,
May 11 @ 12:00 pm – May 13 @ 4:00 pm

The purpose of the conference is to provide a forum for presentation and discussion of new research into heat engines prior to 1812. A wide range of new field and desk research into early engines lacks an obvious outlet, forum or focus and this is the underpinning rationale for IEEC. The event design is based on the International Early Railways Conference (IERC). Repeat conferences are anticipated every 4-5 years. The conference will open at 12.00 on Thursday May 11, 2017 and close at 16.00 on Saturday May 13.

Synopses for 20 papers of considerable interest and variety have been accepted and can be seen on our website (
Catering will be provided and relevant publications will be on sale by the sponsoring organisations.
Delegate costs and are likely to be around £100/person and we will offer options for partners and day tickets.

A bound compendium of previously published articles relating to Early Engines will be provided for all attendees and the conference transactions will be published as a themed edition of the International Journal for the History of Engineering and Technology.

Hotel and accommodation arrangements will not be handled by the conference. Sponsorship – IEEC e facilities and support will be provided by Barnsley MBC. The Newcomen Society will be lead sponsor and the Historical Metallurgy Society (HMS), the Northern Mines Research Society (NMRS) and the South Gloucestershire Mine Research Group (SGMRG) are also providing sponsorship.

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