Commissioning engineers: A global mission

Commissioning industrial gas plants is a mammoth task – but Linde’s Françoise Sabatier and her team of engineers are up for it. The job? Prepare giant gas facilities for live operations. We accompanied the multi-tasker on-site.

Françoise Sabatier may be only 37, but she has already ticked off four continents at this stage of her career, with postings in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. The Belgian’s work brings her to natural gas plants dotted around the globe. She and her fellow commissioning engineers are responsible for performing on-site inspections at Linde Engineering’s new construction projects before the plants are commissioned, started-up and handed over to customers. 

It may seem straightforward, but starting up an industrial plant that took years to plan and build is anything but simple. There is no ‘on’ button for these towering giants – the process of getting everything ready for live operations actually takes several months to complete. “The plant has to be clean, tight and dry,” summarises Sabatier. Even the tiniest of objects or millimetre-sized leaks in the kilometre-long pipe and duct systems have the potential to cause serious damage to the plants, which usually cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. That is why the work of the commissioning engineers is so important: they are there to sign off on the construction phase and get the plant ready for handover to the customer.

Francoise Sabatier, Department Head, Systems Engineering and Start-up, Natural Gas Product Line
Engineers and builders work on construction site

Hidden surprises on the construction site

The cleaning step in particular calls for fastidious attention to detail, given that surprises can sometimes lurk deep within the plant, as Sabatier relates: “We find all kinds of things. In Australia, we once had to pull a snake out of the insulation material.”  

But a commissioning engineer’s job starts long before they make their way to the construction site to supervise the project. A lot of the prep work takes place in the office as they get ready for the delegation to site. They may even be actively involved in the planning process, ensuring that the design engineers factor in all the fittings and fixtures needed for successful commissioning, which would include things like pipelines, controller and measuring instruments.  

The commissioning task at the construction site itself requires good teamwork. The senior commissioning engineer, called the commissioning manager, collaborates with the site manager to oversee the commissioning preparations. “Only once we have inspected the plant with all its components from top to bottom can we start operations and ramp the plant up to full capacity.” At that point, the engineers begin the controlled process of cooling the natural gas liquefaction plant down to around minus 160 degrees Celsius. For helium facilities, the temperature has to drop to as low as near absolute zero.

Getting customers ready for plant operations

Another responsibility of the commissioning engineer is to familiarise the future operator with the  deep details of their new plant. “That is when we take on the role of trainer,” explains Sabatier. The commissioning engineers effectively run a “driving school” for customers, with classroom-based theoretical instruction blended with practical training throughout the plant during commissioning. If the customer has questions or if a problem arises after the live date, the commissioning engineers continue to provide support and expert advice. Customers typically want to know how they can improve the performance of their plant to make it more productive and generally get more out of it.  

The two sides usually have to communicate remotely via phone, e-mail or video conference call at that stage, because the commissioning engineer is likely to be in another corner of the globe. The “construction site”, as Sabatier modestly describes her workplace, can be anywhere from Australia to Canada, Norway or even Malaysia. In a 2015 project in the Malaysian town of Bintulu, over 10,000 kilometres away from her office in Munich, Sabatier was the engineering manager on site, coordinating the interface with the engineering disciplines in the office  of what is still the world’s largest facility for the reliquefaction of vaporised natural gas.

Innovative plant for reliquefaction of natural gas

Linde Engineering built the plant on the northern coast of the island of Borneo in the middle of one of the world’s largest complexes for the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG). At Bintulu, the operator company Malaysia LNG (MLNG), a subsidiary of state-owned Petronas, produces 30 million tonnes of LNG every year. With such a large-scale operation, it is technically very difficult to avoid losing considerable volumes of gas due to vaporisation. Previously, this boil-off gas (BOG) was simply burned off as flare gas. But with the new BOG plant, the operators can now reliquefy approximately 0.8 million tonnes of natural gas. In 2016, this corresponded to 7.5 shiploads of gas capable of being re-used as a fuel. “Not only does this save money, it also reduces emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2, which would otherwise have entered the atmosphere in the burn-off process,” explains Sabatier.

Rewarding path for people with an open, curious nature

On a personal level, the qualified chemical engineer left the South-East Asian country with a good deal more than “a few words of Malay”. A diving certificate for one thing – as well as many memorable experiences, as she herself relates: “For me, Malaysia is an impressive country, a true melting-pot where several different cultures and religions live side-by-side. This is a country where you can find Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, Chinese and Hindus co-existing peacefully.” A certain degree of openness and curiosity is a prerequisite for the job, reckons Sabatier. “Anyone who embraces new cultural experiences will find this job exceptionally rewarding.”  

Sabatier has been with Linde Engineering since 2005. “I have clocked up plenty of air miles in that time,” she affirms. With a smile, she goes through her list of locations: “Australia, Norway, Canada, China, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia, Monaco, and of course Malaysia.”

Panoramic view of the mid-scale Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)
BOC reliquefaction plant in Bintulu, Malaysia.
Chinese temple in Bintulu, Malaysia

A good balance between work and family life

The long-haul travel and periods working abroad have not prevented Sabatier from starting a family. Linde Engineering offers a number of different options so that employees can balance their career with raising a family. During their time on the construction site, the engineering experts can work longer in order to accumulate overtime, which they can then exchange for several weeks of regular time off. In practice, it works out something like this for Sabatier: “I could be on site for six to twelve weeks and be free after that for two or three weeks at a time.” For longer postings abroad, employees even have the option of bringing their family with them.

And there is no chance of the site workers getting lonely: “Our colleagues on construction sites are like a second family. We get to know each other really well and end up building close friendships.”

Being part of something really big

“Commissioning engineers have a pretty special job profile,” maintains Sabatier. She has worked on plants throughout the world in a variety of roles in all project phases right up to customer handover, as well as in after-sales support. She is currently heading up the systems engineering and start-up team for natural gas plantsproduct line, which makes her a line manager for commissioning engineers. “You have to be cut out for life on the construction site. Personality-wise, you need to be fairly decisive and good on perseverance – after all, you are your own boss out there.” Anyone who takes an overly theoretical approach will likely feel overwhelmed when the situation calls for improvisation, according to Sabatier.  She particularly enjoys being part of the story as it unfolds on site and observing the construction work move ahead. When the plant finally gets up and running and the customer is happy with the handover, the work of the commissioning engineers is complete. This is a moment of immense satisfaction for Sabatier: “At last you can see years of paperwork and computer designs take shape in front of your very own eyes.”