My Job at Stanlow in 2023

Article by Staff Writer

DUNCAN BARKER got in touch to share a prize-winning essay that he discovered his late father Andy had written 50 years ago imagining what life at Stanlow Refinery would look like in 2023.

Andy was an IChemE Fellow and it’s fascinating to see what aspects of our lives he got right back in 1973 (commonplace electric-powered transport, desktop computers used for engineering calculations, and automated audio-to-text transcriptions).

There are a bunch where he was ahead of his time: self-driving cars, mass-scale synthetic food production, and electric steam generation. And a number where he was unfortunately well wide of the mark including a shorter working week and solar energy transmitted from space. We can but hope!

You can read Andy’s essay in full below:

My job at Stanlow in 2023

The sun was shining as I stepped off the automatic bus at around 9.30am.

Ever since Merseyside was nominated as one of the three industrial centres in Britain, getting to work had been easy. The Cheshire Automatic Bus Company now provided a quick almost door-to-door service for the employees of all the firms in the area. The Bus Company’s schedule was arranged to fit in with the staff hours and shift times at various places of work.

One just boarded the bus, paid the fare into the televiewer accepter, sat down and rested until it reached Stanlow. Guidance was by automatic pilot, supervised by the Bus Company’s central computer.

All this had happened way back in 2011 and it was now Wednesday 3 July 2023. I felt happy as I stepped on to the moving walkway leading from the bus drop-off point to the offices. It was the last day of my three-day week and I would be catching the evening plane to Australia for a weekend’s shark fishing. I arrived at the office and immediately pressed my “availability” button on my desk console. This signalled my presence to anyone who had recorded their wish to contact me by pressing out my reference indicator on their ‘contact’ buttons. It also enabled the central computer to play back to me any messages left by personnel not at work today.

Trouble with Greenland crude

“Could you please come over to Protein Synthesiser 3 when you come in,” John asked. He continued: I’m just going off now, but we’ve been having trouble all day holding the molecular weight on Shellpro 393. Ever since we started processing this last batch of Greenland crude, we’ve had difficulties. I think it may be something to do with the light distribution along the reactor – I’m sure it needs to be altered now we’re not on the design feedstock. I also think…ah never mind, don’t let me influence you too much. See what you can find out, Lawrence.”

John’s face disappeared from the viewer.

Protein Synthesiser 3 was the latest of Stanlow’s synthetic protein plants. Plants 1 and 2 made proteins in the molecular weight range 18,000-50,000 and Plant 3, which had only been operating for six months, the range from 500,000-10,000,000.

Andy Barker in 1970, three years before writing his award-winning essay

Shell had first started protein production back in the 1980s to alleviate massive worldwide food shortages, but by about the years 2000 most countries had a stable population and a dependable food policy. It was only within the last 20 years that foods containing synthetic protein had been able to compete successfully in their own right with old-style natural foods.

The design feedstock for Protein Synthesiser 3 had been a North Atlantic crude of a type used for many years for artificial fibre, carbohydrate, sugar and solvents production. But since Shell had decided to process these crudes at Shell Haven, the new plant had been forced to process Greenland crudes that were somewhat different in composition.

I went over to my file index and looked up the reference for the design book microfilm. I pressed the computer demand button and tapped in the requisite code. The index flashed up on the televiewer. I selected the data on the photoreactors and asked for a print copy. The steel lips at the bottom of the desk console opened and some sheets of paper were ejected. I refreshed my memory on the reactor operation, donned my safety jackets and hat and walked out of the office.

One of Centech’s vans was available outside. The batteries were charged and the motor quickly hummed as I pressed the destination selector for Plant Area 7. The van moved off slowly and then gathered speed. The gigantic crude oil and product tanks passed by on the other side until the central plant area came into view, together with the tapered dominating 300 m chimney.

The chimney had been built in the 1990s for two reasons. Firstly to discharge at great height what few obnoxious gases remained after the installation of the them sophisticated anti-pollution equipment of the 1980s, and secondly to economise on the use of oil products for fuel. Oil prices rose so dramatically during this period that it became imperative to design for maximum furnace efficiency, and recover all flue gas heat, including that wasted during furnace start-ups and shutdowns. For this reason, all furnaces were connected to the giant chimney via super economisers installed in the flue gas ducting.

Shell uses solar energy

The in 2009 things started to change. The success of the solar energy transmitting space stations was first transformed into commercial use. Shell immediately joined ESEUG (European Solar Energy User’s Group). Solar energy was now converted into use as electrical power, which in turn was partly used for steam generation. Electrical super-conductivity heating had now replaced most process furnaces. The chimney still remained as a reminder of a previous technology. It was of course now used for the remaining furnaces and minute quantities of off-gases.

The new plant complex had been built around the old stack and composed an area one-mile square split into eight plant areas each with its own control room and process control computers. Each control room also operated its own section of the peripheral offsite tankages which surrounded the central plant area.

The van parked itself and I strolled into the quiet air-conditioned control room. Some 15 operators and computer technicians were milling around. Jack Hughes, the senior reactor operator, was the first to speak to me: “Heard you were coming. I requested extra scans at ten-minute intervals so that you would have more information.”


I selected the appropriate buttons on the data editor and the reactor temperature profile over the last four hours at ten-minute intervals was typed out on the paper in front of me. I took a copy of the appropriate analyses from the daily printout and recorded a few more relevant process conditions. The row of close circuit television cameras over the control console showed nothing unusual.

Union demand

Jack and I had a coffee together after discussing the reactor problem. We talked about the Chemical Operators Union’s demand for an optional fourth working day in the week, instead of the current rigid three-day one. As Jack was now nearly 45 years old and about to retire, he also expressed his wish that the company would extend its present teach-in scheme. He wanted to set up his own business as a landscape gardener when he retired but found that none of Shell’s current 58 courses were very relevant. Knowing Jack however, his shop steward would already have taken the matter up with personnel.

I returned to the office and studied the information I had obtained. I made a few calculations using my desk computer terminal and then it was time for lunch. I joined my colleagues in the coffee room afterwards, and after five minutes in the relaxator I was ready for the afternoon ahead.

At the monthly maintenance meeting Nigel Brown, the engineering manager, highlighted one of the current difficulties: “The second stage proteoclaster feed pump on Process Synthesiser 2 has broken down twice in the last year. We have had no previous failures and the last inspection microfilm three years ago gave it as in A1 condition. I am convinced that the humidity in the pump room varies more than the computer scan shows, and that this affects the seals on this pump more than the others.”

Maintenance costs throughout the chemical industry had progressively decreased during the last 50 years, despite the relative increase in the cost of labour, new items of equipment and spare parts. To achieve these virtually maintenance-free units, increasing attention had been paid to reliability engineering. In the case of these pumps it was worthwhile installing them in a room held at constant temperature and humidity. Differential expansion due to changing climate conditions was therefore eliminated and wear minimised.

A swim in the Mersey

The meeting seemed to go on for ages. I operated the recorder when reports were made, or after a course of action had been decided. At last, it ended, and I rook out the recorder transcript and sent it to computer processing. I knew that a copy of the minutes would be on my desk within the hour.

Just after 4.30pm, Derek, our new trainee, stuck his head around the corner of the office.

“I’m just going for a swim at Stanlow Point, coming Lawrence?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve got a couple of hours before the heliport bus leaves for the airport.”

As we walked out into the summer sunshine, I thought of telling Derek what the Mersey was supposed to have been like 50 years ago. But, I had done enough talking for one afternoon!

Article by Staff Writer

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