Thursday, 29 November 2012

Year End?

The end of term is looming at Nottingham, but my work is just beginning. I've got confirmation that my Red Tide course will be going ahead in Oman, and I might be meeting up with a couple of other companies whilst I am over there to discuss things which will fill the month I have before the students return. I've got a few other things in the pipeline in the Gulf as well, including a course for lab staff on waste-water chemical and microbiological analysis next summer.

I analysed some samples from the misbehaving Indian restaurant package plant last Friday which suggest that they have finally stopped using highly alkaline industrial cleaners, and otherwise following the operating guidance we offered. Though their home-made grease trap is still not doing that good a job, I am hopeful that we might now start to see an improvement in performance.

The process design course has gone down very well with the first years at Nottingham, after Xmas I'll be teaching the same subject to the second years. I've taken over as head of the Careers and Industry team at Nottingham, so more interested than ever in fostering links between academia and industry, though not in the usual direction of academics of going to industry with our hands out for research funds. I'm looking to find out what industry want our students to know and to be able to do.

The student who did a summer internship with us last year has got a job in her home country doing something very similar - well done Giselle!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Repeat Business

Looks like I'm going to be progressing with that industrial effluent treatment plant job involving enzyme treatment. Should be interesting. The SCWO nanoparticle production plant design job is also progressing, and in with a chance of a second application of the technology (to industrial effluent treatment) elsewhere.

The Indian restaurateur seems to be making quite a bit of use of eco-label products, so I'm going to look at a few samples and see if I can break the remaining emulsion in his grease trap with a dosed chemical. Though we are now well outside the scope of my original order, I do hate to leave a job undone, even when the client will not follow the operating manual, as in this case.

The students are making fair progress on the troubleshooting problem. I'm quite impressed by the way they will rise to a challenge. 

Friday, 9 November 2012


I have a pretty much clear desk today as far as engineering consultancy is concerned. Reports and designs are all out and awaiting comment.

I'm expecting a call from site today to tell me if the sewage treatment plant at the Indian restaurant has started behaving now that the owner has started using eco-label products instead of the highly alkaline industrial cleaners he was using before. Initial anecdotal reports of absence of distributor blocking and clear effluent from the grease trap are hopeful.

My students at Nottingham have been set a knotty troubleshooting problem, but they seem to be rising to the challenge. More of the same for them next week, as we suspend normal lectures for week eight of the course for them to attempt a suite of practical problem solving exercises.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

X marks the spot

Technician holds bailer sample from borehole contaminated with hydrocarbons
I took a mixed group of third year Chem Eng and MSc Environmental Eng students out to carry out a site investigation this week, with the same interesting results as last year.

First I gave them a map of the site they were on, and asked them to place a cross on the map where they were standing. Results were better this year than last- three of 35 managed to put a cross pretty close to the right position. Last year it was zero. Our students seemed at the start of the exercise to lack a feel for mapping and relating real world features to drawings, which was much improved by the end.

The main exercises were a site investigation under a contaminated land protocol, and undertaking sampling of boreholes contaminated with  LNAPL (floating hydrocarbons). As before, students loved the hands-on experience, though some of the foreign ones found Nottingham in autumn a little nippy....

Saturday, 27 October 2012


I'm off to look at a number of problems with one of the plants I look after in Manchester today. The reported problems are that the sand washer on a continuous sand filter has stopped working, along with ancillary systems as the system has sucked up a load of high solids sludge which has contaminated several stages of tretament, and the monitor for the SCADA screen has chosen this as a good time to stop working. There will undoubtedly also be a few other little problems which will get in the way of the easy fix.

Put out my reports on papermill effluent treatment and another industrial effluent treatment job yesterday, which I am quite pleased with.

The paper-mill effluent treatment operators had amassed an enormous amount of monitoring data, which made it possible to be unusually sure as to what was going on, once I had handled the information overload with some statistics. 

The other industrial effluent treatment job involved use of a novel biotechnology product ( not something I do often, being quite conservative) to render an impossible to treat effluent readily treatable by means of a temporary plant constructed with hired equipment.

Interesting teaching experiences this week, getting first-year engineers to deal with the sketchy information and loosely defined problems which they will work with when they become professional engineers. I've also been arranging for the IChemE Safety and Loss Prevention Roadshow to visit us in November.

I'm going to complete my outline design of the SCWO plant as well this weekend, hopefully. Things should calm down a bit now that I have these jobs cleared, though many of them have the scope for follow-on work.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Papermill Effluent - Capacity and Turndown

Went to look at a paper-mill effluent treatment plant yesterday, which had never met its design performance, mostly down to two things - insufficient capacity, and lack of controllability. Of course if you have enough capacity, controllability is far less of an issue.

When I was working at Water Engineering in Banbury, someone told me that they had evaluated the margin of safety which went into their standard design procedure for aeration systems by comparing actual with theoretical performance and that it was on some measures as high as six. Some things were six times as large as they theoretically needed to be.

Experienced designers design plant not for a single duty point, but slightly beyond a design envelope, with enough controllable turn-down for the commissioning engineer to have a bit of capacity in hand.

Having been a commissioning engineer, I know that even on this basis, there are usually a few items which are supposedly comfortably oversized which end up being tuned to run under some operating conditions at the far end of their range.

I'm going to do a few sums to see if the plant as built can be made to work with minor mods, or whether something more radical is needed. My present feeling is that there are pipework modifications which will give a step-change improvement in plant performance.

Unusually the plant has been incredibly well monitored, and the wealth of data on present performance will give a solid baseline, allowing us to know for sure whether our changes have been effective.

Things have been less satisfactory with the Indian Restaurant job, though the owner has now realised that the supposedly septic tank friendly cleaning products he was sold are just the same as the old stuff. He has asked us to specify an alternative, though we sent him the list of EU eco-label products ages ago. We have suggested Ecover, though all of the eco-label products are equal as far as we know.

Hopefully if he starts using that, we might get somewhere. When we visited last week, the tanks were covered in a foot of foam, and several of the distributors which had been blocked by fat carried over by the cleaning chemicals had not been maintained.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Start of Term and Industrial Effluent Treatment

I have had a couple of busy weeks, with the new intake at Nottingham, as well as picking up and continuing a few jobs - still designing the SCWO plant, starting the new industrial effluent treatment plant, and arranging to go and look at some problems with biological treatment of paper mill waste next Friday.

The Indian restaurant job may be getting back on track after we explained to the client last week what he needs to do to keep his effluent treatment plant running - straight from the British Water Guide.   

I'm really enjoying the mix of work.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

What Engineers Know and How they Know It

W.G. Vincenti was an engineering researcher who wrote a book called "What Engineers Know and How they Know It", which I am trying to get my colleagues at the University to read, to understand how engineering research and engineering practice should fit together.

Vincenti's basic idea is that engineering is not applied science - engineering has six categories of knowledge of which the last five are proper subjects for engineering research, as follows:

1.Fundamental Design Concepts

These are not scientific fundamentals, but instead the design engineer's axioms - a common idea of what the thing being designed is for, its operating principle, and its normal configuration.

2.Criteria and Specifications

Engineers may design artefacts to meet a need defined by others in non-technical terms, but in order to do so they need to transform the general, qualitative specification into concrete, quantifiable performance characteristics.

3.Theoretical tools

The theoretical tools of the engineer may be based in mathematics, science, or be peculiar to engineering. They provide ways of thinking about and analysing design problems.

3a. Mathematical Methods and Theories

The mathematical tools least peculiar to the engineer may be based in pure mathematics, or sciences, but they have been simplified for application to a particular situation by intoducing a set of approximations and assumptions which apply to only that specific set of circumstances. More particular still are the phenomenological theories which practitioners share about things too complex for scientific analysis, even if they have little scientific standing. At the far end of the spectrum are commonly held approaches to design of specific systems, used only because they seem to work, and no better method is known.

3b. Intellectual Concepts

Engineers are less like philosophers than they are like scientists. They are not fussy about where they get their ways of thinking about a design problem from - anything which works is good.

4.Quantitative data

Engineers need physical data to design things. They need descriptive knowledge, of how things are. They need prescriptive knowledge, of how things should be to ensure that the designed item meets the specified need. 

5.Practical Considerations

One can have perfect knowledge in all previous categories and still be unable to design an artefact that works. One also needs know-how, usually obtained from long practice in the profession, and interaction with those who produce, commission and operate the artefact.
6. Design Instrumentalities

Or less opaquely, structured procedures for going about the design of an artefact, ways of thinking about design problems, and judgemental skills. Some of these can be taught directly, but professional competence in these areas comes only from practice.

Vincenti then differentiates between seven ways in which engineering knowledge is generated (I know, he clearly had a lot of time on his hands. I am going somewhere with this....)

1. Transfer from science
2. Invention
3. Theoretical engineering research
4. Experimental engineering research
5. Design practice
6. Production
7. Direct trial

He draws the following table to illustrate the interaction between knowledge types and knowledge generating activities:

Table 7.1 Summary of Knowledge Categories and Generating Activities

So engineering research can generate new engineering knowledge in all categories other than practical considerations. Researchers know about, practitioners know how. This is where I come in.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Home Again

Back home after another successful course in the Gulf, this time on the use of membranes for water treatment in Qatar.

Both SCWO (Supercritical Water Oxidation) projects seem to be progressing well, undertook a site visit just before I went away for the UK one, and the European one looks likely to result in a treatability trial at least. I might produce a course on the technology if it looks viable/practical.

We are having a few problems with the Indian restaurant job, where extremely high levels of both grease and powerful cleaning agents are putting very high loads on the plant. We have recommended they use only agents with the EU Eco-label, as salesmen for cleaning products seem to be making slightly vague but nevertheless convincing green claims to our client. One to watch out for is: "Biodegradable to European Union definition of the term"- this is a pretty low standard, as I said in my correspondence with the consultants who employed me (acronyms explained below):

The EU standard for biodegradability of surfactants is >60% over 28 days HRT*, though this manufacturer claim that some of their products achieve >95% over 28 days.

This standard appears to be about biodegradability in the wider environment, rather than in the few hours of HRT in an ETP*. If we were looking to improve FOG* loss in the OWS*, we would need 95%+ removal in an hour or two.

Their degreasing products are mostly strongly alkaline mixtures of petrochemical based surfactants. They look to me to be pretty much standard heavy duty janitorial / industrial cleaners, similar to beer line cleaners.

I see no reference in their website or literature of the "septic tank friendliness" which their salesman claimed. There are many vaguely green claims made, especially by salesmen, so to make things easy for the client,  products in compliance with the requirements of the EU Ecolabel would be my desirable minimum standard. (A quick check of a couple of the salesman's products shows that their products do not all meet this standard (Their sanitiser has R50 substances well above specified limit)) Even this standard does not guarantee suitability, but it would improve matters.   

The products most likely to be causing the problems with FOG passing the  OWS, and to be likely to have biocidal effects are as follows:

Beer line cleaners
Floor cleaners
Dishwasher detergents
Toilet cleaners
Drain maintenance products

All of these should be the least aggressive product possible, close to neutral pH, and using the most biodegradable surfactants possible. The EU Ecolabel would be a useful guide.

Use of the lowest possible concentration of cleaning products to give an acceptable degree of cleaning is recommended, as is following the recommendations of the BW guide sent earlier."

The client is responding to our requests, and hopefully plant performance (whose improvement has stalled short of the required standard) will once again start to improve.  

ETP= Effluent Treatment Plant
HRT = Hydraulic Residence Time
FOG = Fats, Oils and Greases
OWS = Oil Water Separator

And there's more - as well as bits and bobs of work for our long term repeat business clients (including something on foam suppression), we also have an order in the pipeline for treatment of a very interesting waste-water with unusually hazardous properties, and are starting the planning of a couple of courses in Oman and the Far East around the year end.

One more week of full-time consultancy before I'm back teaching at Nottingham. It's all about process design this year - I'm teaching it to all three years of the undergraduate course, and to most of the Masters' students too.  

Interesting to teach formally things you learned informally. First you have to figure out what you know and how you know it.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Supercritical Water Oxidation

We are looking at a couple of jobs involving use of SCWO for decontamination of industrial effluents, one full scale, and the other involving a bench scale trial. Interesting stuff.

We are also going to have a look at a water recycling job for a petrochemicals manufacturer whilst we are in the Middle East in a couple of weeks time giving a couple of training courses centring largely on the use of membranes in industrial effluent treatment.

The truck wash effluent job seems to be approaching the point at which we will be able to offer a recommendation, but it has been hard getting the bidders to offer enough real information to technically assess their bids.

We are having difficulties with the package plant recommissioning, as the client will not stop putting beer pump cleaner and other caustic based cleaning products down the drains. Things were progressing nicely until sufficient caustic was added to the plant to raise pH throughout to 9 for a sustained period. 

The plating plant effluent job came to nothing, looks like it was one of the many people who would like you to design a plant for them free of charge with the promise of payment down the line. We have too much paying work to be tempted to work for free.

Back at the Uni on 21st September, which doesn't mean I'll not be carrying on with Expertise work, but it will obviously reduce the amount I can do, whilst still doing justice to my students' needs.

This first summer break from full-time teaching seems to have worked well, I've been continuously busy, whilst still having time for a couple of short breaks.

Today's job - stop procrastinating with your blog and start planning out the mix of lectures, syndicate and individual exercises you are going to use on those courses in the Gulf....   

Friday, 17 August 2012

Industrial Effluent Treatment

Finished the pesticide manufacture effluent treatment course yesterday - I learned a lot myself from the last days' detailed discussions of problems at a number of the client's sites.

We had a new enquiry yesterday to design a number of plating effluent treatment plants - industrial effluent treatment seems to be the thing which is providing most of my new business at present

Our recommissioning of the misbehaving package plant continues (new test results tomorrow), as does our evaluation of bids for a truck wash effluent treatment plant.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Problems with Fats, Oils and Greases in Packaged Effluent Treatment Plants for Restaurant Effluents

I've been faced recently with a problem which I looked into right back at the start of my career : Fats, Oils and Greases (FOGs) in catering establishment effluent.

Having cleaned out the historical contamination at the Indian restaurant site, we are seeing some evidence of fresh breakthrough of cooking oil onto the Titan biological treatment plant, despite previous sampling data suggesting very low FOG levels in effluent from the fat trap.

Titan units are quite intolerant of fats, oils, and greases, and consequently we are investigating ways to enhance the operation of the grease trap/oil water separator upstream of the unit by means of chemical dosing.

We are not proposing to use any of the proprietary systems which use enzymes or bugs to supposedly enhance oil removal, as our prior experience with such systems is not favourable. We have seen them used too often as an add-on proprietary product by inexpert system installers with no understanding of the root causes of problems, which might be why we have seen them cause far more problems than they have solved.

Other than that, I am spending my day tweaking tomorrow's course on effluent treatment in pesticides manufacture.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Interesting Stuff

Technician Looking at Packaged Effluent Treatment Plant Sample Analysis

We've taken on a summer intern (one of my MSc students at Nottingham) who will be carrying out sampling and inspection for the Indian restaurant job we did recently to monitor improving performance as the bugs grow up.

Her first visit is tomorrow, it'll be interesting to see how much improvement has occurred in the two weeks since we recommissioned it.

We have still more new enquiries: two new tender assessments, another expert witness job, and a really interesting industrial effluent treatment enquiry.

The order is in for one of the tender assessments, looking at two alternative approaches for treatment of truck wash effluent from two companies of very different size and track record. Just waiting on answers to my questions.

Thursday, 26 July 2012


Though I'm on holiday from the University for much of the summer, I've never been busier.

I've been preparing three training courses, two overseas, one UK, as well as preparing three new plant design courses for the University.

A new job came in today week evaluating technical and commercial aspects of bids for an industrial effluent treatment plant, I've had a couple of serious enquiries to investigate problems with water features and industrial effluent treatment plants, and I've even had an enquiry to do with industrial effluent treatment via the University!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Recommissioned Titan Plant

Here's that unloved Titan/Entec/Kingspan plant back in full working order after last week's repair / refurbishment / recommissioning exercise.

The C and L Fabrications Matrix unit proved far more difficult to fix, due to a combination of installation errors and what appear to be design weaknesses.

All package plant designs have their strong and weak points, but the Matrix appears to have a feature that makes it hard to recover from the sort of substandard installation we saw at this site.

Despite this we we able to get everything back in working order.

We have reconfigured the plant layout to overcome a number of weaknesses, and now we will take samples at intervals to observe the recovery of biological treatment capacity.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

As real as it gets

I'm writing a manual today for a forthcoming course in Saudi Arabia on desalination.

I'm looking forward to getting away from the desk, and going to site tomorrow for something a bit more hands-on. We will be repairing and recommissioning two package plants (including the "Matrix" unit pictured above) at an Indian restaurant in the North -West UK.

I'm taking a couple of MSc students I'm supervising at Nottingham along to watch. It'll be nice for all of us to remember that whilst research and writing are both interesting and necessary, making things actually work is a rather messier business.  

Friday, 13 July 2012

On Specialisation

To get some perspective... 

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:
By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:
By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:
With a bachelor's degree, you gain a specialty:
A master's degree deepens that specialty:
Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:
Once you're at the boundary, you focus:
You push at the boundary for a few years:
Until one day, the boundary gives way:
And, that dent you've made is called a Ph.D.:
Of course, the world looks different to you now:
So, don't forget the bigger picture:

Keep pushing.

From the Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. by Matt Might

Friday, 6 July 2012

Summer Holidays?

water problems

I'm having to write to one of my overseas clients today to say that I've only got a couple of weeks un-booked between now and October.

Recommissioning of package plants, three or four professional training courses overseas and UK, expert witness work, as well as a number of smaller troubleshooting jobs, of course writing my Design and Advanced Environmental Engineering courses for Nottingham, and a few bits of holiday.

Not really holiday weather anyway...

Friday, 29 June 2012

Rethinking Engineering Education

I'm reading this book at the moment, which advocates two changes the the structure of engineering education. I'm convinced by one of these, but far less so by the other.

The first of the changes is the contextualisation of engineering education as preparation for a professional life practising what they refer to as CDIO: Conceptualisation, Design, Implementation, and Operation.

I'm 100% behind this - engineering is not merely maths and science, though we must give students a firm grasp of this fundamental knowledge. We use this knowledge to achieve specific goals, which the authors of this book define a little clunkily as  

"Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate complex value-added engineering products, processes, and systems in a modern, team-based environment."

The second change is one I am a little suspicious of - combining the change defined above with a one towards a highly problem based learning approach, inspired by "constructivism", a "theory of learning" with little empirical evidence to support it. 

Before I undertook a teaching qualification I had no idea how flimsy the underpinnings of educational fashions are. PBL and its related approaches come in and out of fashion in education on a cyclical basis. They sound  good, and are certainly popular with students when well executed, but are abandoned when educationalists learn once again that they are a very poor way to teach fundamentals. To the extent that they show any positive results in learning outcomes, it is in teaching professional skills.

I like these techniques, as do my students, and I use them when I want to make my students integrate what they have learned elsewhere, but we cannot replace traditional teaching methods wholesale and hope to turn out graduates ready to engineer.

I'll see if they successfully address these issues later in the book, but no "educational theory" stands up to scrutiny as a technique for improving learning.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Water Minimisation in Qatar, and other Training Courses

I'm just back from delivering a course on water minimisation in Qatar, where their free water supplies make them one of the world's most profligate users. The course went well, with satisfaction levels around 90%. I also got a bit of fishing in, so all in all a good outing.

The Qataris are hoping to go from their present position close to the bottom of the world's water efficiency league table to close to the top by requiring their businesses to attain zero water discharge by 2014.

More courses in Qatar and Saudi in the offing later in the year, and a large Swiss agrochemical manufacturer has booked an in-house course for August as well.

I'm taking over the year one and two design courses at Nottingham University, as well as the Master's level Advanced Environmental Engineering module, and a staff training course "Chemical Engineering for Scientists" so I'm spending much of my summer writing course materials, on way or another.

I've got some real engineering on the books too, upgrading a misbehaving package plant, and looking at problems with a couple of industrial effluent treatment plants.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Theory and Practice

Kingspan Entec Titan Package Plant Problems need a Water Engineer

We are preparing for a couple of courses in the Middle East in June, including our first CIWEM accredited one.

Back in the real world, we are due to sort out another package plant problem in July. The initial site visit last week showed that it combines a number of problems seen previously elsewhere. The picture is of the seriously unloved "Titan" unit (aka Kingspan/Entec) at the site.

The novel feature this time is that one of the plants in question is a Matrix unit from C+L Fabrications, which we have not seen previously.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


We have all kinds of enquiries coming in - training in the Middle East and Europe, fracking water treatment modelling and design in the Balkans, effluent treatment plant optimisation in the UK,and another misbehaving package plant to look into.

Lucky the students are on holiday - apart from those on Nottingham's Environmental Engineering Field Course, who I am taking to visit my local sewage treatment plant today as part of a problem based learning exercise.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Qatar Training

I'm just back from delivering a variant of my most popular training course in the Gulf (the one on on water and effluent treatment) in Doha, Qatar. It went well (as long-developed courses tend to) with delegate satisfaction around 80% across all categories.

As ever in the Gulf, delegates came with very detailed real world problems they wanted to get into, and much of the last day was spent troubleshooting these specific situations.

I learned some interesting things myself, such as that:

Qatari Nationals (who are only around 25% of the population) get water and power for free, which may have something to do with their unusually dilute effluent.    

Seawater infiltration and sewer septicity are so prevalent that concentrations of H2S in the street can be up to 2000 ppm!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Plenty on...

Landed a couple of jobs last week, (a bit of expert witness work, and a training course in Qatar), and we are well placed on three or four others, which are a mixture of Middle East training courses, consultancy, and more expert witness work.

Doing quite a bit of teaching now, adding realism (and increasing  the use of drawings) to Nottingham's Chemical and Environmental Engineers.

All makes for an interesting mix...

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Picking Up

More enquiries this week, including yet another bit of expert witness work, and an invitation to give our Water and Effluent Treatment course in the Middle East again. Things are picking up, and teaching starts again next week too...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Practical Stats

Here's an interesting blog specialising in the application of stats to water analyses, (amongst other things) discussing the many ways in which it is possible to misinterpret them

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Business as usual

We've had a few small enquiries recently, which have been enough to keep us ticking over. A little problem with the package plant under the playground (soon to be handed over to the management company, and of course, still going well), an expert witness job for an arm of government, and one for a well-known management consultancy.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from all here. I'm glad to have the teaching job, with the recent downturn in enquiries, and not spending the break as I usually do on emergency callouts to frozen water treatment plants due to the mild weather conditions.