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18 December

Chemical Engineering- how OV Mike Haines discovered his passion

Preparing pupils for the world of work and helping them to discover their passions in life is at the heart of what King’s does. This week we are absolutely delighted to share OV Mike Haines (W 52-62)’s story as Mike takes us on a tour of his life from his time as a pupil at King’s St Alban’s, through to senior school, University and his amazing career.

Mike discovered his passion the chemical engineering industry and it is fascinating to learn how this industry evolved during Mike’s career and how he adapted to the introduction of new technologies, safety measures and, more recently, issues on sustainability. Mike is now retired but is still keen to share his passion for chemical engineering and his industry insights with the next generation of OV engineers. Thank you Mike for sharing your story and your wonderful anecdotes- we are very thankful we don’t have monthly scuba gear tests!

“I started at The King’s School in the preparatory school St. Albans which entailed passing an entrance exam at the age of about 7 in those days. My main interests in early days were science and aeroplanes. I borrowed many books from the Malvern library, mostly on scientific subjects both fact and fiction. I was fascinated in particular by the life of Sir Humphrey Davy and his explosive escapades discovering the oxides of nitrogen. Back in those days many of the boys in the school were intrigued by explosives and rockets. Comparing notes about our latest efforts at bomb making was a regular topic of conversation on the half hour bus journey to and from school. I excelled in the sciences and was particularly interested in chemistry. Obtaining very good A and S levels meant that I had a chance at a place at Cambridge University and this was helped by the close association the school had with some of the Colleges.

Choosing a career was something which was put in our minds by the school careers masters at the time of O levels mainly because a choice of A level subjects had to be made. I was also passionately interested in aeroplanes, building models and also being part of the RAF section of the School Combined Cadet Force. This enabled me to obtain my first “wings” flying solo in a Kirby Cadet glider at a course in Kirton in Lindsay in Lincolnshire when I was 15. Flying is a very serious bug once it bites and it was a toss-up between becoming a pilot or a scientist for the final years of my education.

However, money played a big role in my final decision. I read in a careers book about the various engineering disciplines and was also influenced by the fact that my father was a civil engineer, rising to become head of the Severn River Board. The book told me that chemical engineers were the highest paid in the industry so given my interest in chemistry I resolved to study Chemical Engineering. This was relatively new and specialist discipline at the time. Cambridge then offered an excellent course which was split into two 2-year segments. A study either of natural sciences or Engineering for 2 years followed by 2 years in the small Chemical Engineering Faculty. I chose the natural sciences route as it satisfied more my interest in Chemistry and avoided having to take the dreaded MSQE (Mechanical Sciences Qualifying Examination) which had a reputation of being extremely difficult pass. Even so the wonderful A and S level results did not fully qualify you for a place. I had to go up at Christmas after my main exams to take the University qualifying exam. The Chemical Engineering department at Cambridge had been set with an endowment from Shell who also offered scholarships worth, if I remember correctly, a princely £450 per year.  I obtained one of these Scholarships which set me on the road for the possibility of a career with Shell.

I was very lucky to be able to pursue my other interest at Cambridge by becoming a member of the University Air Squadron. This enabled me to gain my real pilots wings and experience instrument and night flying as well as my favourite – aerobatics.

Then came the real choice of career as the end of University approached. Sign up for the RAF or seek a job as a chemical engineer in industry. At that time the military was shrinking but the chemical industry was booming. It was before the days of North Sea gas so many companies were building gasification plants and advanced processes for plastics and synthetic textiles had been discovered. Pharmaceuticals was also emerging as a major industry. My early association with Shell earned me a first job at their Carrington chemical works near Manchester. I had already spent several months pre-University in my “gap” year training at Stanlow refinery. I can recommend these industrial placements as they give participants a lot of new skills as well as insights into the real world of work which academic study cannot provide.  Stanlow was fascinating as it provided basic training in metal working both by hand and with lathes, grinding machines and welding equipment. Also, inspection of process plant involving crawling through the inside of pipes, furnaces and distillation columns. There is nothing like hands on experience, once you end up behind a desk this is difficult to acquire.

Working for Shell opened up a world of travel. I only spent 24 hours at Carrington as I was redeployed to the chemical plants at Stanlow. That too did not last long as the Company selected 3 of the new graduates to do an exchange with the staff at their large refinery and chemical works in Rotterdam. I spent 5 years in the Netherlands, learned to speak Dutch fluently as well as working in the day to day operation of some plants processing very dangerous substances. The worst were liquid Chlorine and anhydrous hydrochloric acid. I saw leaks of both, the Chlorine in particular fascinating by the way the heavy gas flows to low points in pipe trenches almost like a liquid. I have never forgotten the sight of an operator in full breathing gear and rubber suit “wading” through the Chlorine to close a shut off valve. I learnt new practical skills, the donning of breathing gear in a hurry was one. The trainer called you into to his office once a month and threw a SCUBA set onto the floor at random. You had 30 seconds to get it on to pass your monthly certification.

I moved on from Rotterdam to the Hague into the process design department where I spent about 3 years and met my wife to be, the daughter of another English Shell engineer. I had taken up gliding after my time in the air squadron and continued to enjoy this in Holland. The Chemical Industry was still in overdrive and during that time I worked on the designs for the huge chemical complex which was set up at Moerdijk in the south of Holland.

My next move was back to an operational job in Stanlow. It was on a new process for making synthetic alcohols and was notable because of the vast array of early operational problems. It used a wide range of conditions from high temperature furnaces to deep vacuums. Most notable was the plating out of solid cobalt on to the internals. Cobalt is extremely hard and I even engaged an explosives firm to bring in some gelignite to try to clean it off some of the internal coils – unfortunately without success.

Outside of work we both enjoyed sailing and scuba diving in North Wales. However, things were already starting to dampen down the European chemical industry. What had been ground breaking was becoming run of the mill and was migrating to low cost locations. The design and building of new chemical plants stalled and I experienced the first of many waves of industry retrenchment with the inevitable redundancies and redeployments. There is a lesson here that whatever career choice you make it needs to be flexible. However, I was offered a complete change of scene. Oil was becoming scarce and advanced extraction techniques under the general heading of EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery) were in demand at a time when the spectre of global warming was still well below the horizon. I moved to the Oil and Gas Exploration and Production part of Shell International and was posted to the Sultanate of Oman to engineer high pressure steam and polymer extraction techniques in the heavy oil reservoirs in the south Oman desert. We spent 6 wonderful years there. The work was fascinating but the country even more so. I learned a lot about geology which is easy there because most of the rocks are exposed. Leisure time was also good with trips into the deserts as well as fishing and scuba diving.

The oil industry underwent a huge shock with the Piper Alpha disaster and this resulted in a rapid redeployment of people to concentrate on safety. I was posted back to the head office in the Hague to a newly beefed up safety department and started to travel the world. An early stop was Australia where Shell had one large offshore gas platform at North Rankin and was about to build a second for the Goodwyn oilfield. I had obtained some video of the disaster which the staff in Perth had not yet seen. At the start of the safety review of the new platform I showed it and the room went absolutely silent in disbelief. I spent several years conducting design safety reviews, pre-start up reviews and operational safety reviews at major oil and gas facilities all over the world. It took me to Australia, Brunei, Oman, Egypt, Thailand, Nigeria, Gabon, Germany, The Netherlands, Sarawak, Norway, the North Sea and China (which in 1988 was quite different to what it is today).  It was hard on family life as each visit would take 2 to 3 weeks but the experiences I had were unforgettable.

The last phases of my career were heavily influenced by the current concerns for climate change. Shell had realised that times were changing fast and had an opening up in the late 1990’s to engage with other institutions to aid development of new technologies to tackle the impending problems. This led to study on the potential for a range of technologies including gas to liquid conversion, fuel cells, superconducting cables for energy transport and carbon dioxide capture and storage.

I reached retirement age and was lucky enough to obtain a part time job managing research studies for the International Energy agency greenhouse gas technology programme based in Cheltenham, back in my home country and close to my home town of Malvern. That kept me busy and travelling world-wide for about 10 years. Highlights were a project near Potsdam in Germany where Carbon Dioxide was injected into a heavily instrumented and characterised reservoir to advance knowledge on its safe and permanent storage deep underground.  A rare visit to southern Algeria to view gas production facilities which were separating and storing CO2 in a deep underground reservoir.

Latterly I helped organise annual meetings which were sharing research in use of circulating solid beds in the capture of CO2. This latter took me to seminars in Austria, Spain, Holland, China and finally back to Cambridge when my old faculty organised one of the seminars. The faculty there has recently merged to become a department of Chemical engineering and Biotechnology. This change is a clear indicator that the profession will increasingly encompass biological as well as chemical techniques, something which should now be considered when choosing which subjects to study.

In conclusion, Chemical Engineering is one of the broadest of the engineering disciplines and the skills it uses can be applied in a wide range of industries. For me it has been and still is intellectually stimulating. For anyone wanting to have secure long-term employment and also contribute to the challenges of sustainability and climate change it should be an excellent choice.”