Inside the sprawling central London Imperial College campus is the last place any one would expect to find a fully functioning industrial facility.
Yet neatly hidden in the modern interior of the university’s South Kensington campus is a four-story state-of-the-art carbon capture plant that processes roughly the same amount of carbon produced by 50 people over one year.
Built in 2012, the plant is run by Dr Colin Hale and is equipped with an ABB control room that students can use to gain hands-on experience of controlling a pilot-scale industrial process facility.
As well as providing a vital learning experience, ABB, which invested close to £1m and signed a ten-year agreement with the university to support the facility, also uses the plant to test its new applications that incorporate Industry 4.0 principles.
Most recently, the firm has been testing its Ability Field Information Manager, a new software solution that the company says makes the configuration, commissioning, diagnostics and maintenance of devices easier and quicker than ever before.
Granular operational data
The software follows a trend in power plant control management of having more granular information at an operator’s fingertips for better decision-making and improved maintenance.
The solution connects individual devices to the Cloud, so controllers can access diagnostic information 24 hours a day, seven days a week, online. This is as opposed to plant instrumentation needing to be verified or calibrated by a trained maintenance technician.
One of the objectives of the software is to eliminate maintenance visits for non-critical equipment tests and for them to be performed less frequently for the most critical measurements.
“Typically, when setting up a control system you don’t add lots of diagnostic data, but only information critical to running your plant,” explains ABB digital lead David Lincoln.
“With this software, operators can access device-specific health related information, as well as other insights, independently from what is happening in the control system, as a second channel,” he adds.
The software is part of the evolving way power plant maintenance and management is being conducted; with more instant visibility and data to gleam better insights that can then be used to improve efficiency or reduce maintenance work.
“To access this information would normally require some specialist engineering effort, whereas this is much more standardised software; it’s essentially a connectivity key that unlocks data,” says Lincoln.
The software takes information from the operational environment and brings it into the IT technology environment, he says, which is a field millennials and Generation Zers feel right at home in.
Improving carbon capture processes
At the facility, as well as testing new software solutions, Dr Hale regularly shows AS and A Level students, along with presidents and Nobel Peace Prize Winners, how to use the ABB control centre.
It’s an excellent way to engage students to consider an industry they might otherwise overlook for others deemed more modern or exciting.
The centre is fitted with an ABB Ability System 800xA control system and a comprehensive array of measurement instruments and analysers that monitor and measure the performance of the plant and the conditions under which the carbon capture processes are run.
Next to the impressive control desk, with all its screens, charts and live video streams from the plant floor, is a full-scale paper map of the plant.
Dr Hale says students will learn to read the map and be able to diagnose problems from it in the second A Level year. But it’s a stark contrast to the digital charts and plant modelling more commonly used now. The paper version has clearly been relegated to the status of ‘back-up only’.
Presently, Lincoln is using the Ability Field Information Manager software to help Dr Hale build dashboards of information on the 100-150 devices in the plant so students can be taught how they each work.
“There are two columns in the middle of the plant, one is to capture the carbon dioxide and the other is to strip it back out of the solution,” says Lincoln.
“We are thinking there are loads of temperature measurements and other information within those columns and we want to pull it out and into the Cloud and use it to visualise how the columns are working in a colour map.”
The two will build a model of temperature information into a colour chart, potentially similar to a traffic light system, showing how each are working. This will allow them to easily identify areas of inefficiency to discover how to optimise operations in the future.
Maintenance training of tomorrow
More sophisticated software solutions, such as the information manager, that provide easier access to more granular data have changed the way students are trained, as well as the skill-sets they now require.
“My personal view is that the skills needed are changing; there used to be many classically trained instrumentation technicians who knew how to solder things, but now they are retiring and the new generation is growing up with apps and tablets,” says Lincoln.
“There knowledge is not quite the same when it comes to the instruments and processes, but they can find the information that is needed through the internet and do their task that way.”
Companies, therefore, he adds, are now thinking that rather than sending in a maintenance person around the plant every day, they can utilise technology to capture that information instead.
“It is a bit of a shift, but it’s exciting and hopefully it means we can improve how things function and make things more efficient in a sustainable way,” he adds.
From paper maps and multi-meters to digital models and the Cloud, surely AI, a technology that will likely be considered ordinary for Generation Zers, is the next step for power plant management and maintenance of the future?
“Yes,” says Lincoln, adding that ABB is experimenting with the technology.
“In the future, maybe you won’t need to access device data because there will be an app running in the background monitoring it, which will give you an alert and tell you to assess it in a month’s time or it will fail,” he says. “This is where things are shifting to.”