ICI Billingham and Steam Reforming – The Catalyst that Saved British Gas  

Posted: February 13th, 2017
When:
April 19, 2017 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
2017-04-19T18:00:00+01:00
2017-04-19T20:00:00+01:00
Where:
NEWCASTLE: Tyne&Wear Discovery Museum
Blandford St
Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 3PZ
UK
Contact:
branch secretary

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.

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