Early-career industry physicist Aidan White tells Joe McEntee about his work as a project engineer at TÜV SÜD National Engineering Laboratory, the UK’s designated institute for flow and density measurement
There are many ways to navigate the transition from physics degree to the more formal world of work, but not all of them involve rigorously mapped career pathways and a laser focus on “the perfect job”. Sometimes it pays to just go with the flow – a strategy that appears to have worked out well for physicist Aidan White, who joined TÜV SÜD National Engineering Laboratory in East Kilbride, Scotland, as a project engineer in spring of last year.
After completing a five-year MPhys degree at the University of Strathclyde, White says he “kind of fell into the TÜV SÜD opportunity”, acknowledging that the move was something of a departure from the research project he’d been working on for the previous 18 months – running computer simulations to evaluate medical radioisotope production in the university’s next-generation “laser-wakefield” particle accelerator. “It’s important to have an open mind,” he says of that initial job search. “Physics is a broad subject and it can be tricky to find your niche because of all the diverse opportunities available to you.”
Fast forward a year or so and, somewhat serendipitously, it appears that White has already carved out his niche within TÜV SÜD. The organization’s East Kilbride laboratory, which manages the UK’s national standards for flow and density measurement, is one of the leading global providers of flow measurement and related equipment calibration. It also offers consultancy and R&D services to the oil and gas industry, instrumentation manufacturers and the wider energy sector. Furthermore, as a National Measurement Laboratory, the business carries out industrial R&D on behalf of the UK government, developing technologies and best practice in sectors such as alternative fuel measurement (for example, hydrogen and liquefied natural gas) and carbon capture and storage.
I’ll give something a try before I tell you I can’t do it
As White tells it, the key message for other new graduates is “to get your foot in the door and roll with it”. He should know: he applied for one job as a mathematical modeller at TÜV SÜD, only to end up being hired as a project engineer in the group’s flagship test laboratory – the new £16m Advanced Multiphase Facility (AMF) – which was being commissioned around him last summer. “Adaptability is a real asset,” White maintains. “It helps that I’m a hard worker with a can-do attitude. I’ll give something a try before I tell you I can’t do it.”
If you build it, they will come
At the operational level, White and his colleagues in the project-engineering team are currently rolling out the AMF to a global customer base. Their specific focus is the £50bn-per-annum global subsea oil and gas industry, with the AMF designed to address current and future measurement challenges through company-led R&D projects, new product development, hands-on industry training and academic research.
Specifically, the AMF is being put to work evaluating the impact of extreme subsea operating environments on multiphase flow meters from a range of manufacturers. These instruments, which typically cost hundreds of thousands of pounds per unit, are a mainstay of the oil and gas industry. They are used to measure mixed streams of oil, gas and water flowing through a well-head or distribution system on the ocean floor. Such measurements are increasingly vital as larger production wells dwindle and energy companies seek to exploit smaller, more numerous wells in deeper waters and extreme environments.
“A big portion of our work is in supplying contract test and R&D versus calibration, validation and certification of all sorts of multiphase flow meters,” says White. “Many manufacturers have their own small-scale test facilities, but none can hit the pressures and flow rates we have here in East Kilbride, which are much closer to what the meter will experience under field conditions.” Fundamental research is also on the AMF agenda. The facility’s three-phase X-ray tomography system, for example, enables high-definition imaging of complex multiphase flows and their impact on flow measurements.
Learning by doing
When White joined the TÜV SÜD laboratory, the AMF building was already in place with all the heavy plant installed. Next came commissioning and mechanical completion of the core equipment and instrumentation. “It was a case of the right place at the right time for me,” says White. “My first task was to get to know the AMF inside out, seeing where everything went and how it all worked together – the valves, pipework, secondary instrumentation and reference flow meters.”
Although that meant a “steep learning curve and total immersion” over those first few months, White acknowledges that the benefits were immediate and long-lasting. “In many ways, the AMF resembles a big physics experiment – a 1600 m2 factory-sized one!” he notes. “Having been part of the AMF commissioning team, you can throw a valve number or transmitter number at me and I’ll pretty much be able to tell you where in the facility it is.”
Equally invaluable are the problem-solving skills White developed during his physics training – being able to look at the big picture and break that down into its component parts while working on a range of projects. “A solid mathematical background also helps, especially with respect to data mining and data analysis,” he adds. “We have to go through lots of data to figure out what’s relevant, why it’s relevant and what it all means.”
Right now, White is relishing the fact that no two days are the same and that new opportunities and responsibilities are never far away. Although he’s been with TÜV SÜD for less than 12 months, White has already been selling the AMF’s capabilities on the conference circuit, presenting the facility to industry executives and engineers at their regular Oil and Gas Focus Group in Aberdeen.
“TÜV SÜD is a prestigious place to work, with all sorts of talented people making up our cross-disciplinary teams of scientists, engineers and technicians,” White concludes. “My priorities for this year are to keep learning from all of them and to get some research formally published based on the work I’ll be doing with our AMF customers.”