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Fanning the flames


Remote controlled Air Liquide plant provides oxygen for steel production

As if driven by a higher power or the hand of a ghost, the cursor jumps across the computer screen. Left, right, up, and down. No one is sitting at this operator’s console, the cursor has a life of its own. Then the cursor is clicked, changing the volume flow of the process displayed here. 
But this is not a hacker sabotaging a computer system, and it’s not a malfunction either. Instead, it’s daily business at Air Liquide’s air separation plant in Unterwellenborn.

The plant, located in the picturesque Thuringian Forest, is remote controlled from Air Liquide’s main eastern German production facility, in Böhlen, some 130 kilometers away. The 10-strong staff in Böhlen can monitor the air separation plant from a distance. 
Outside of regular business hours (i.e., between 10 PM and 6 AM, and on weekends), two operators are on on-call duty. In case there are problems in Unterwellenborn, they can log into the system via a computer and make necessary adjustments. That includes set points such as volume flows, temperature, or pressure. The operators can also access and read control protocols. 
With literally all parts of the plant controlled from afar, is Unterwellenborn a sort of “ghost plant” then? 
Not entirely. 
While such technologies are gaining popularitydue to their cost-effectiveness, they cannot entirely replace human skill and expertise. 

It’s no different in Unterwellenborn.

The maximum period of time that the plant is deserted is seven days, but normally it’s two to three days. So, while human presence may be decreasing, it’s still an important aspect in Air Liquide’s plant maintenance. 

Cutting the steel

The plant in Unterwellenborn is integrated into the steel production complex Stahlwerk Thüringen, a site with a storied history dating back to the 1870s. 
Air Liquide supplies the modern-day Stahlwerke Thüringen plant with oxygen and compressed air as well as argon and nitrogen. The oxygen is primarily is used in smelting processes but also in continuous casting, where the oxygen essentially cuts the hot steel on the rolling train into smaller pieces. In total, Air Liquide’s Unterwellenborn plant produces around 5,500 Nm3/h of oxygen for Stahlwerk Thüringen, combined with 8,600 Nm3/h of compressed air (at varying pressures). 
At the heart of the Unterwellenborn air separation plant is an Atlas Copco compressor, a three-stage GT063 for process air coupled with a booster stage (GT026). In operation since 1998, the compressor has run reliably, says Air Liquide, although it requires regular maintenance and service just like any other high-duty machine. 

So while the GT063 may seem to be controlled by a ghost most of the time, it does need some human intervention – at least every now and then....