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Winter 2004

No Nano-Technology for Them..

Passion for Mega-Technology Fuels Global Careers in Power

Remote Spots and Heavy Industrial Power Systems - Left: Paul Hamer (EE ‘72) enjoys serving as a senior staff and consulting electrical engineer for ChevronTexaco in remote or “hot spot” areas of the world. In January, he was on an oil platform in the North Sea, off Aberdeen, Scotland. Right: Barry Wood (EE ‘72), also a senior staff and consulting electrical engineer for ChevronTexaco, inspects a turbo-generator rotor, which is being rewound. Hamer and Wood were college roommates at Tech.

While microscopic circuits and nanotechnology make headlines, college roommates Paul Hamer (EE '72) and Barry Wood (EE '72) enjoy careers in heavy industrial power systems — "machines you can walk through," described Hamer; systems that not only cost millions of dollars each, but also represent millions more in revenue, according to Wood.

Their work as power systems engineers has involved them in projects throughout the world, including an iceberg-resistant oil platform located on the Grand Banks, a high-sulfur-oil project in Kazakhstan, and a polystyrene plant in Shanghai. Theirs is a story of technical challenges combined with lifelong passions for problem-solving, teamwork, and 12-ton rotors at 3600 rpm.

Westinghouse Training
Hamer and Wood both went to work for Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Pittsburgh, PA after graduation from Tech. "Westinghouse was one of the best training grounds in the world for electrical power engineers," said Hamer.

"We had the good fortune to work with people at Westinghouse who had many years of experience, were very knowledgeable, and had the personal attributes to train younger engineers," said Wood. "That set the stage for the rest of my career. I appreciated that mentoring and recognized the importance of the people skills," he added.

 Both returned to school for MSEE degrees: Hamer to Oregon State University; Wood to the University of Pittsburgh. After earning his master's degree in 1978, Wood joined McGraw Edison Co., in Canonsburg, PA, as a senior power systems engineer. In 1981, he joined Electro-Test, Inc., in San Ramon, CA, where he held positions of senior electrical engineer and supervisory electrical engineer.

The Evolution to Staff Consultants
Hamer joined Chevron Corporation (now ChevronTexaco Corp.) in San Francisco after earning his master's degree in 1979 and has been with the company almost 25 years. He described the evolution of a staff-oriented engineering department to today's environment of service-oriented engineering consultants that recover their costs. As staff engineers, "we have to sell our worth to the firm," he explained. "We are the inside consultants and we compete with outside consultants."

Wood joined Hamer at ChevronTexaco in 1987 and they both now serve as senior staff and consulting electrical engineers for the firm's Energy Technology Company in Richmond, CA. Much of their work involves refineries and production facilities that have heavy electrical power needs, often exceeding 50-100 megawatts — enough to supply towns of 50,000-100,000 inhabitants. As the electric power experts on design teams, it is their job to decide whether to build their own generating station or buy from a local utility in addition to determining the appropriate technology.

Staff engineers are very motivated to make sure  projects do not create problems in the years after start-up, according to Wood. "As an internal consultant, I'm here after the project is completed," he said. "The engineering firm that built the project is gone and others from the team are distributed elsewhere, so if a problem comes up, I'm often the one who gets called to solve it."

People & Technology Skills
He finds his greatest challenges to be team communication and "convincing project management to try a new technology and that the new technology entails an acceptable level of risk." Due to project costs that run many millions of dollars to build process plants that must operate safely and reliably, there is a slower adoption of new technology in the petrochemical industry, he explained. "If you step out from normal practice and use more recent technology to do something that has not been done before, you must consider not only the millions of dollars you are investing, but also the millions of dollars in expected revenue," he said.

He described a project in El Segundo, CA, in which he was able to convince the team they could build motors at speeds that had never been built before. "We built 3500 hp motors with 11,160 rpm — three times the normal 3600 rpm speed. This was really a step change," he said. "It proved very successful with minimal difficulty and is running well today."

Communication Challenges
Another refinery project in Pascagoula, MS that used similar technology was a good example of teamwork and communication challenges. "About 10 years ago, we installed a 15,000 HP, 6000 rpm motor, which, at the time was the largest motor at that speed in the United States," he said. "The conventional solution was to use a steam turbine, but we wanted the significant savings we would get from a high-speed motor."

Communication became an issue for the team, as different parts of the motor and drive system were being built in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. "All these parts had to fit together and work as a system," he said. "We were dealing with different languages and cultures." Language barriers are common when team members are using their non-native language, even when they are fluent, he explained.

Communication and team issues not only cross geographic cultures, but also engineering and non-engineering and even personality types, he said. "As team members, you also need to communicate with personalities who don't believe they can make a mistake and those who believe that mistakes are OK because they can be fixed later. On these projects, all the equipment needs to function as a system and it's a challenge to make sure the people involved really communicate the requirements to avoid costly problems during the plant startup.

"After every project, we have a lessons-learned session, and the number one issue every time is learning to communicate better because of the diversity of the group involved." He added that the longer he is out of school, the more he believes that his English and communications courses may have been the most important.

Power for the Tengiz Oil Field
Most of Wood's experience has been in the United States and Western Europe, while Hamer has worked with many projects in remote or 'hot spot' areas of the world. Due to travel schedules, they see each other about once a month. "We've known each other so long, that we bounce things off each other as we did when we were undergraduates," Hamer says.

 Hamer was a member of the initial survey team to determine the feasibility of the firm's involvement with developing the Tengiz Oil Field in Kazakhstan, which was then part of the Soviet Union. A distinct memory of that project was visiting the centrally run Soviet utility in 1991 and sitting in a room with one entire wall covered by a portrait of Lenin. "With some pounding on the table, the general directors informed us that we must take what electrical power they give us," he remembers. "With diplomatic sensitivity, we had to reply that if their power was not acceptable, we would generate our own, which is what we had to do to be able to operate the processing plant safely and reliably."

The Tengiz field is one of the largest in the world, with 24 billion barrels of high quality oil and 6 to 9 billion barrels recoverable. The field — noted for its depth, high pressure, and high-sulfur content — was the site of one of the longest-burning blowouts of the Soviet oil industry in 1985. Developing the field required special treating and Western technology.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the team had to renegotiate with the Republic of Kazakhstan, and formed a joint venture in 1993. "It was very gratifying to be a member of that spearheading team," Hamer says. Today, the venture produces 250,000 barrels a day of crude and is working to double capacity by 2006.

Designing for Iceberg Impact
One of Hamer's favorite projects was serving on the design and startup teams for the electrical power system for the Hibernia oil platform. Hibernia is situated southeast of St. John's, Newfoundland, 100 miles from where the Titanic sank, on the Grand Banks, in "one of the most unforgiving offshore environments." Hibernia was designed to withstand impact from a 7 million ton iceberg. The electrical system for the platform uses 50 megawatts of power, and presented "a very intense design effort to get all the equipment on such a relatively small platform (about 200 x 300 meters).

The design work took place in 1990 and Hamer returned on the startup team in 1997. "We had to go through basic survival training: a week-long course where we get out of capsized helicopters and manipulate in survival suits," he described. "Part of the final exam is going out on the ocean and jumping from a small ship into 30-degree water." On final exam day, a thunderstorm blew off the bow of the ship with lightning striking just a hundred meters away. "I've never seen people jump off a ship so fast," he said. "I was a member of the Lightning Protection Code committee at the time. As I jumped, I could read the headlines: 'Member of Lightning Protection Code Gets Killed by Lightning in Newfoundland."

Learning 'On the Fly'
Hamer and Wood believe that their Virginia Tech education provided them an excellent base and led to their first jobs. "The strong technical fundamentals that I learned provided me the foundation that I could build on once I went to industry. Almost everything I needed to know had to be learned on the job, and Virginia Tech provided me with the theoretical background and the critical thinking skills to accomplish this," Wood said. 

"That's what we do in industry," Hamer said, "learn by experience and learn by doing." He remembers when electric motor vibration problems threatened to stall the startup of a $1.5 billion project and he had to quickly teach himself rotor dynamics, typically a mechanical engineering topic. "I had to solve the motor vibration problems and find alternative sources for the motors," he said.  “I was fortunate to have had excellent mentors within Chevron and, additionally, to have been able to draw upon the motor manufacturers’ experiences.”

IEEE Fellows
Both men have been named IEEE Fellows, the highest professional honor in the field. Wood was named a fellow last year for contributions to high-speed motors and adjustable speed drives for the petrochemical industry and Hamer was named in 1997 for contribution to performance standards for motors and generators in the petrochemical industry.

Need for Power Expertise
From their perspective and experience, Hamer and Wood are concerned about the trend in the United States away from career goals in heavy industrial power systems. "We need to keep a practical sense of what is going on," Hamer explained. "There is always the latest trend, such as today's digital emphasis, but we can't forget we have a large installed base of equipment that's kind of old fashioned and going to be there for years. We need people with the expertise to keep it working for the next 30 years. We need people with an interest in the area. It's too late when the lights start blinking out."

Although many power engineering jobs have moved to the PacRim and Europe, there will always be a need for electrical engineers who understand industrial and utility power systems, according to Hamer. "Even the new plants that come on line with digital control and digital protective relays still need to plug into the transmission lines and the distribution systems that have been in place for 50 years. The systems are being upgraded, but this needs to be done with an understanding of the problems... We have overstressed our power system grids and the systems are becoming more sensitive to disruptions. It takes an understanding of electrical system dynamics and protective systems to avoid problems."

Find a Passion
As engineers who thoroughly enjoy their jobs, and as parents of college and high school students, both men believe today's students should explore the wide course offerings at Virginia Tech. Wood and his wife, Marie, have two sons: Jeff, 24, and Tommy, 20. Hamer and his wife, Mary, have two children: a son Mark, 15, and a daughter, Kailey, who is 14.

"In addition to recognizing the importance of people and communications skills, students should get a broad education," Wood said. "You don't know what you'll be doing when you get out and you need a foundation that will support many paths," he said. "Above all, find something you enjoy doing. That's what is necessary to be successful and for personal happiness."

Hamer agreed. "Find a passion and latch onto it. That's what led me into a most satisfying career," he said.

 

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Last updated: Wed, Apr 21, 2004