Today’s China Syndrome

Sept. 27, 2005
The country boasts not just booming exports but a strong desire for the best technology.

You might remember the 1979 film “The China Syndrome” in which our heroes, Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, help narrowly avert disaster at a nuclear power station. All good Hollywood hokum at the time, but certainly a gripping movie and one with more than a grain of truth about it, as the Three Mile Island incident proved only 12 days after the film’s release. One of the iconic scenes in the film is when station supervisor Lemmon taps on the glass of a coolant level indicator (well, it was 1979) and gazes in horror as the gauge “unsticks” itself to reveal the seriousness of his situation.

Of course, the film had nothing to do with China (its title comes from the mythology of the time that a reactor meltdown could burn all the way through the earth to China), but for some reason — a generational thing, I guess — that scene came to mind recently when I was standing in the middle of the central control room of China’s largest, and newest, petrochemical complex just outside Shanghai. Operated by SECCO (Shanghai Ethylene Cracker Company), a joint venture between BP and the Chinese companies Sinopec and Shanghai Petrochemical Corporation, this $2.7-billion 10-plant complex went on stream in March — just 27 months after the first piles were driven into land reclaimed from the sea that makes up the 10-km² Shanghai Chemical Industry Park (SCIP).

Needless to say, there are no glass-fronted gauges to be tapped in this control room — just row upon row of operator stations for a complex-wide integrated control system based on Emerson Process Management’s PlantWeb digital architecture and DeltaV distributed control systems. Impressive though the control room is — SECCO’s deputy project director Jack Brinly compares it with NASA’s mission control center in Houston, but at something like ten times the size — the plants are even more so.
The complex boasts the world’s largest implementation of Foundation Fieldbus to date, with over 47,000 control loops, 40,000 instruments and around 13,000 intelligent devices networked over 2,500 fieldbus segments. These link back to ten integrated DeltaVs, including the first one to take control of an ethylene cracker.

As main instrument vendor, Emerson orchestrated the engineering and implementation of the automation and control systems across the ten plants and their ten individual engineering/procurement/construction contractors. This aspect alone made the project something special. SECCO had decided at the outset not to go with the conventional approach of appointing an overall project-management contractor, preferring instead to take on that role itself while working with a Shanghai-based Emerson team to write the engineering functional-design specifications for the entire complex.

At the time of my visit, China announced its decision to revalue its currency, the yuan, breaking its direct link to the dollar, and the Chinese group CNOOC withdrew its $18.5-billion bid for U.S. oil company Unocal — moves welcomed by those in the U.S. and elsewhere concerned about China’s growing international role. However, what SECCO and SCIP showed was another side of that booming Chinese economy — a country prepared to embrace and invest in the best technology available.

As Emerson’s president, John Berra, has said: “I see more willingness to take advantage of technical innovation in China than in other parts of the world. There’s a burning desire to have the very best. The real growth has come in the last four or five years, but the groundwork [for Emerson] was laid a long time ago. China is a long-term commitment, and we’ve been as patient and determined as the people who built the Great Wall.”

Without doubt, China is challenging but the opportunities are there, too. The nameplates at the entrance to SCIP bear testimony to that — the park already houses operating plants run by the likes of BASF, Bayer, Huntsman, Degussa and Lucite.

Mike Spear, editor at large
[email protected]

Dr. Spear is editor of the U.K.’s Process Engineering magazine.

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