Up in the air

Written by: Matt Clay | Published:

Intended to be a feather in the UK’s large-scale gasification cap, Air Products’ Teesside projects have been halted, resulting in hundreds of redundancies and millions of pounds lost. What does this mean for the technology in the country?
Matt Clay investigates

The tale of Air Products’ Tees Valley gasification projects will no doubt be a significant moment in UK waste management history. With the eyes and ears of the global waste management community firmly upon the North England site, this was a chance for the industrial gas company to step up and prove that large-scale gasification could work in the UK. Unfortunately this was not to be the case.

Problems started after its first 350,000 tonne per year (tpy) project was completed, known as Tees Valley 1 (TV1). Due to be operational in the summer of 2014, delayed commissioning as a result of reported technical trouble meant that the facility had yet to start operating 18 months later.

In November last year, construction work on the second 350,000 tpy project – Tees Valley 2 (TV2) – was suspended, resulting in 700 job losses. Both projects were designed to supply 49.9MW of electricity.

If that wasn’t enough fuel to add to the ongoing saga, in April this year Air Products publicly announced it will be exiting the energy from waste (EfW) business completely in the UK. It would not be continuing with Tees Valley 1 and 2.

In a public statement, the company said its “board of directors has decided that it is no longer in the best interest of the company and its shareholders to continue the Tees Valley projects”. By exiting the UK’s EfW sector, Air Products said it can “direct its resources to its core business of industrial gases”.

Financially, the move is expected to lead to a pre-tax charge in the range of $900 million to $1 billion in discontinued operations, as a result of the assets associated with the Teesside business.

“Air Products is focused on our core industrial gas business,” says Seifi Ghasemi, chairman, president and CEO of Air Products. “We pushed very hard to make this new EfW technology work and I would like to thank the team who worked so diligently. We appreciate the hard work of our employees and contractors at the site, and understand their disappointment in this decision. We are also disappointed with the outcome.”

Air Products said that “testing and analysis completed during the company’s fiscal second quarter indicated that additional design and operational challenges would require significant time and cost to rectify”.

The company was unavailable for further comment when approached by RWW.

Tight-lipped

Interestingly, the technology in question is Alter NRG’s proprietary Westinghouse Plasma Gasification, which has been used in three commercial plants in Japan and India and three reference plants in the US.

The main difference has been the scale: the gasification technology has been used elsewhere successfully, but not at 350,000 tonnes per year.

It was in early 2009 when the two companies signed a joint development agreement to pro-vide Air Products with access to Alter NRG’s technology for five sites across the European Union and the US.

Although Air Products has remained tight-lipped about the closure of the Tees Valley plants, a union official has been quoted providing more details.

GMB construction officer Phil Whitehurst reportedly told ENDS that the plasma gasification technology installed in TV1 “eroded the gasifier walls through the combined action of heat and acids”.

ENDS reported that tests had been blowing “big holes” in the ceramic lining of the gasifier stack. Although parts were taken from the second project to fix up TV1, this wasn’t successful. In a statement released in early April, GMB, the union for engineering construction workers, blamed the “company’s incompetence” for the site closures.

Michael Blench, GMB regional officer, said: “Both TV1 and TV2 have provided employment for the region, but the inability of Air Products to purchase the right, proven technology and then its reported incompetence at rectifying the design flaws have now resulted in both plants being potentially scrapped.

“The knock-on effect is going to deny work for the local supply chain and jobs for local people in both running the plants and maintaining them. You couldn’t invent a story like this if you tried.”

In a statement released in November 2015, GMB said: “The problems seemed to be in a technology failure on the previous Tees Valley 1 plants which was constructed for Air Products next door by EPC [engineering, procurement, construction] company Foster Wheeler.”

Scaling-up

For Mark Ramsay, principal consultant – resource efficiency & waste management – at Ricardo Energy & Environment, the scale-up factor of the Teesside projects was perhaps too much of a jump.

Speaking to RWW, he says: “Building a plant on such an ambitious scale was always going to be a challenge. It is possible that TV1 would have benefited from a more robust scaled approach, moving up from a 100% successful demonstration-scale plant (where all elements of the process were proven in combination) in advance of investing in a large-scale commercial plant.

“A more incremental approach to development may have helped Air Products avoid what is a common source of failure for advanced waste treatment technologies.”

Ramsay says that for these projects, Air Products had a scale-up factor of 35 over a typical demonstration plant of 10,000 tpy. A scale-up factor of 10 is considered more prudent, he says.

Professor Nickolas J Themelis, chair of the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council, believes the company would have been familiar with operating in challenging environments.

“In the distant past, I consulted Air Products on the use of industrial gases in metal smelting,” he tells RWW. “They are familiar with high-temperature furnaces and systems. MSW combustion or gasification products contain a relatively high concentration of chlorine, but conventional WtE plants have learned how to deal with high-temperature corrosion. Therefore, it is hard to figure out what may have been the major technical flaws that would result in walking away from such a large investment.”

Gasification skills

It’s the sheer scale of the two facilities that many industry pundits continue to question – why jump into two 350,000 tpy projects instead of scaling up more progressively?

Geraint Evans, bioenergy programme manager at the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), puts a positive slant on the situation and believes that in rolling out this technology across the country, the UK could build and strengthen gasification knowledge in its workforce to a position where the UK could become a centre for successful gasification deployment.

“I was sorry to hear that Air Products weren’t able to successfully commission their gasification project,” says Evans. “It’s a blow that a company with the engineering expertise of Air Products have had to call it a day as I’m sure they could have resolved their issues given a little more time.”

Evans goes on to point out that the ETI “sees great value in high efficiency gasification”.

According to Evans, ETI is of the belief that the technology could be usefully employed to provide energy storage.

“There is still a need to develop a first high efficiency plant that delivers the promised value and starts to build a UK industry that we think could deliver around 15,000 to 20,000 new high technology jobs over the next decade,” predicts the bioenergy programme manager.

The future

Clearly, Air Products’ Teesside tale will be a cautionary one for future large-scale gasification projects in the UK. Yet smaller projects continue to go ahead.

In Hull, construction is expected to start on Energy Works’ proposed 240,000 tpy gasification plant.

Meanwhile, a 93,000 tpy gasification plant is being installed by Amey as part of its waste recovery park in Milton Keynes. This is expected to generate 7MW of power.

“Despite the failure of TV1, there is still an interest and an appetite for advanced treatment technologies in the UK, and they are still being considered in the technology mix by local authorities who are in the process of planning long-term waste infrastructure,” adds Ricardo’s Ramsey.

“However, it is now more likely that less innovative gasification technology (such as two-stage combustion or Japanese high-temperature systems) will be selected to obtain available government incentives, but at much lower technical risk.”

Air Products is a sizeable company – in 2015 it generated sales of $9.9 billion, with 20,000 employees in 50 countries. Although that’s not much consolation to the 700 or so Tees Valley employees who lost their jobs, the company has deep pockets to swallow this hiccup and put its short EfW career firmly behind it.

The upcoming gasification projects could not come online soon enough to prove that this technology does have a future in the UK and the country can compete with others in the global waste management field.

Matt Clay is a freelance correspondent


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