I didn’t know any engineers when I was growing up and, to be honest, I didn’t realise how important engineering is to everyday activities – getting water from a tap, driving along a road, eating processed food, watching tv, taking medicines – the list goes on and on! I loved learning about science but I didn’t really know, until I started my A level studies, that engineers are the people who use science to make things happen at scale in the real world. Then I was hooked on the idea of becoming an engineer.
I discovered that there were lots of different types of engineers; civil, mechanical, chemical, electrical, aeronautical and software engineers, for example. I was attracted to chemical engineering because it is all about changing raw materials into useful products in a safe and cost-effective manner. I liked the idea of making petrol and plastics, which are often the things we think about when we see a chemical plant, but I also found out that chemical engineers help design the processes that make food and medicines, make water safe to drink, generate power from carbon free sources and other things to help people live safe and healthy lives.
I usually work in a team with different people for different projects. The teams include other types of engineers but also people from other areas such as human resources, finance, legal and IT. We all use our individual skills and expertise to reach the best possible solution to business problems.
My area of expertise uses the principles of chemical engineering to make sure we control things like temperature, pressure and flow in our processes. A process is the combination of pipes, heat exchangers, pumps, compressors, vessels and valves that we use to “process” the raw materials into useful products. Controlling the conditions within the process is important for safety, to minimise the impact on the environment and to make sure the product quality is correct. In my job the products are oil that will go to a refinery and gas that will be used for power generation, domestic use or be made into liquefied natural gas (LNG).
We use industrial grade computer hardware and software to control the process. I need to make sure the hardware we install will work well, all day, every day often for 10 or more years, and that the software is programmed correctly to automatically respond to all the situations that may occur. I often use computer simulations to create a digital twin of the process so that I can test the software changes in a virtual environment before they are implemented or to train people on how the control system works.
Start-up (that’s when the oil and gas flows from the reservoir for the very first time) of the PSVM project in 2012. PSVM is a floating production, storage and offloading vessel located in the Atlantic Ocean, offshore Angola, which means that the process we designed is fitted onto a ship moored above the oil and gas reservoir. The seabed is 2000m below the ship and then it’s another 1500m from the seabed, through various layers of rock formations, to the reservoir. I had worked on this project for four years and it was amazing to be in the UK monitoring, using our control system, the temperatures, pressures, flow changing as the first hydrocarbons flowed through the process over about 24 hours. A project like this takes many years, involves thousands of people in worldwide locations and is a significant financial investment for all the partners and it was great to see it come to fruition.
But I’ve had lots of variety in my career as a chemical engineer, so there’s also the very small project that I did with a chocolate bar manufacturer to help make sure the chocolate cooling system worked properly!
My biggest challenge is also one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, as long as I get the balance correct. Variety! I work in a team that answers many and varied questions about control engineering from across the upstream business. In addition, we need to look ahead to the challenges of control engineering in the near future. This means that we have to continuously balance the business priorities and invest a suitable level of effort. It’s a constant challenge to get the balance correct but it means that we are always thinking about the business drivers for our work.
Keep on studying maths and the sciences in as much depth as possible whilst at school. Then, remember that further and higher education training in engineering equips you with skills that are valued in many non-engineering roles. Your career can, therefore, take many different paths depending on what you enjoy and are good at.