Power Gas Letter from Company Metallurgist

Gordon Harnby was the company metallurgist for Power Gas, who at that time were the leaders in constructing steam reformers for the manufacture of town gas. The actual process had been developed by ICI Billingham. Their big innovation was that the process could use naphtha (cheap petrol). It was the technology that saved the British Gas Industry, greatly reducing the cost of gas. Furthermore, because the gas was supplied at high pressure, it could be piped over a wide area. Much of Teesside was supplied from a steam reforming plant at Hartlepool. The letter heading shows that by 1967 the company had been absorbed by Davy United.

However, the reformed gas boilers on these plants suffered from a serious corrosion problem, and Power Gas was cooperating with the R&D people in British Gas at London Research Station to find a solution. I eventually took over this job and met Gordon on a couple of occasions. Once at Bowesfield Lane. The letter from Gordon is to my predecessor, Peter Neufeld, and is full of good advice about the materials we should use in constructing a “side stream test rig” for testing more resistant boiler tubes.

The other picture reveals the cause of the corrosion. You are looking at the tube plate of a fire-tube type boiler. White potassium carbonate, carried over from the reformer, has deposited on the entrance of the tubes. When the boiler is operating, the deposit formed a sticky sludge which was highly corrosive, resulting in burst boiler tubes.

Images and details courtesy of Fred Starr.

5 thoughts on “Power Gas Letter from Company Metallurgist

  1. The letter carries initials “AT”. Could this have been me old mum, Audrey Thompson who once worked there. At 57 she may well by that time have been a tad past her best, yet always said she could “lose” any of the girls in the typing pool, both for speed and accuracy. From my certain recall, managers approached Audrey when they had anything of importance that had to be typed quickly and correctly.


  2. I expect the boiler water treatment was the same as we used at Hitchin, Herts, where we had several reforming plants. The water was first demineralised in the water treatment plant and then the alkalinity increased by adding sodium carbonate. The water was then deaerated using steam in a deaerator. However the final traces of oxygen in the water were removed using hydrazine. I would guess that was the “dope” that was being used by David Isley and his workmates.


  3. I worked for fifteen years on Steam reform plant at Billingham ICI, and one of the routines required of the outside process operators, was the regular “doping” of the boiler feed water. I can’t remember what the “dope” consisted of, but was added to water, and then injected into both LP and HP boilers. Regular sampling of boiler water at the end of each shift, was a required routine, and the results would determine the amount of “doping” needed.


  4. The Power Gas Ltd Brochure, which is in this sequence, shows what a reforming plant looks like. ICI Billingham were using the same process of course, to make the hydrogen needed for ammonia synthesis. The ICI plants ran at a lower pressure, and higher temperature, than those of British Gas, to maximise hydrogen production. This may have been the reason why ICI did not seem to have experienced this potassium carbonate boiler corrosion problem.


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