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A day in the life of…
Plant Operations Engineer at Santos
James Watson at studied Chemical Engineering at University of Adelaide, and is now Plant Operations Engineer at Santos
Before I can start my work day at the Moomba Gas Plant I have to get there. Located about 800 km North of Adelaide, Moomba is pretty much in the centre of Australia. My ‘trip’ starts with a short 1.5 hour flight from Adelaide. I’ll then do two weeks of ~12-hour days on-site before heading back home for two weeks off. This is what I’d call a normal day working as a Plant Operations Engineer:
Alarm goes off. Straight away I jump out of bed before I have the good sense to think twice. A quick shower and change gets me out the door and onto my bike in 10 minutes – record time! Maybe I should push my alarm back tomorrow morning…
I pedal the short way to the mess hall for a bite to eat. The smell of the hot breakfast buffet wafts deliciously towards me as I enter the hall. This morning I have the willpower to go for Weetbix and fruit before hopping back on my bike.
It’s a beautiful 200m ride to the plant across the causeway. If it’s still dark I’ll see the plant lit up in front of me. No time to stop though! Once I get to my desk I fire up my laptop and catch up on any emails that hit my inbox overnight.
The Process Shift all come together for the daily Toolbox meeting. We cover off on any key IMSs (safety incidents) from the previous 24 hours to raise awareness. These can be anything from a sore back to an incorrect shutdown isolation. Following this we go around the room and find out what’s happening in everyone’s area today. As the plant engineer, I usually just listen for any interesting pieces of information and forecast any changes we’d like to make today. I’m currently looking into methanol injection NRVs so I flag this to the Area Operator.
Once toolbox is wrapped up I get stuck into my daily duties. I run the daily Fuel, Flare & Vent report to identify any key opportunities for today. If there is any improvements that I notice I’ll feed these back to the shift.
I wander across to the Work Selection meeting. Every day we look at the work requests generated in the previous day and prioritise these. I keep any eye out for any kit that is ‘broken’ but may just need to be operated differently - sometimes a little up-front investigation can save a lot of maintenance time.
Back to my desk to finish off the plant monitoring and reporting. I notice that we’re using too much steam on one of the CO2 removal trains and talk to the controller about reducing it.
Coffee and a snack with the control room team – what did you think keeps this place running?
The Process Engineering Team in the Adelaide office call me on Video Chat for our regular catch-up to discuss all things engineering. Can we increase our product yield? Why is this pump not pumping? Can you check this PSV for me? I usually get more questions than answers but I learn a tonne in the process. I add all the questions to my To-do list so I can get to them later today.
I walk to the next building over for the Daily Operations Review Meeting in which we discuss the next 24 hours. The Instrument Technicians want to access a Boiler to repair a level gauge but it needs to be offline. The changes we made to reduce the steam this morning means we’ve got plenty of steam in reserve if a Boiler trips. We make a decision to take the Boiler offline and cold-store it until all work is finished.
Time for some more trouble-shooting. The area operator is free so we grab our protective gear and head out to the problem pump. We throttle in the discharge valve whilst taking pressure readings. For some reason this pump wasn’t doing the flow rate we’d expect and that’s costing us cooling capacity. Closing in the discharge valve helps but we need more data. The operator gets called out to a more urgent job so we return everything to the safe position and I head back inside – we’ll try again tomorrow.
I stop to think where the morning went – is it lunch time already? The team across the hall give me a call and we walk back over the causeway to lunch. I opt for a nice spicy pork curry (hot lunches are the best!) while the others head to the salad bar, mumbling something about their metabolisms.
Back to the office and it’s time to start getting through that To-do list! I start with a site-check of the PSVs as I want some fresh air and it’s on the far side of the plant. I hydrate first (when it’s 40oC+ you can’t afford not to) and ride out with my camera and drawings. A few photos, measurements and notes and I head back. But not before taking a selfie to send to my partner tonight!
A quick check of the trends tells me our product yield is down – why are we sending so much ethane to sales gas? I check-in with the controllers and discuss ways of reducing this figure. We make a change and plan to monitor over the next few hours. In the meantime I call the support engineer and wrap my head around the compressor control system. We identify two other possible improvements so I add them to the list and move on to the next job. One step at a time!
I finish compiling an investigation I’ve been leading into our methanol injection header NRVs (one-way valves). We’ve found that one component of this particular valve isn’t compatible with methanol and we need to change it out. I pull together two experienced colleagues to perform a risk assessment and work out some actions that immediately reduce our risk of a failure. It’s a low risk item but there are some simple actions we can take to mitigate it, so we get started straight away.
I head over to the control room again to chat to the controller about sales gas. The first change we made has worked but we’re still below target. I pull out my notes from earlier and talk through the next two changes. Once we’re on the same page he starts making the necessary changes and I head back to my desk for some catch-up time.
The day is almost over and the email inbox is piling up. I spend the next two hours digesting (and occasionally responding) to emails before I tidy up the loose ends from today’s findings.
I duck out early so I can go for a run before dinner - it never works out well the other way around! One lap of the sand dunes is enough for me.
Once I’ve cooled down enough I head over to dinner at the mess hall. I go for fish & chips tonight with a piece of snickers slice for dessert.
Back to my room for some well-deserved R&R.
Bedtime – then to wake up and do it all again tomorrow!