If Beijing’s chronic smog clears a little in the near future, some of the credit will go to a company on a quiet street in an ancient British cathedral city.
RJM International, an energy plant consultancy based in Winchester, completed its first Chinese project in February. It converted an already relatively clean district heating plant in Fengtai, Beijing, to meet strict new emissions rules for nitrogen oxides (NOx).
The Fengtai project is one of scores worldwide in which RJM International has deployed its sophisticated technology to help existing power plants produce lower levels of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants. Export markets have become especially important to the company, which has won a Queen’s Award for innovation, since the UK government’s 2015 decision to phase out all coal-fired power plants nearly ended the flow of new projects in RJM International’s home market.
Managing director John Goldring, who led a buyout of RJM International from US-based RJM Corporation in 2005, believes it enjoys an advantage over bigger rivals because it can tailor each project to the particular circumstances and conditions of a customer’s facility. The competitors, Mr Goldring says, “will claim they do that. But we’re a bit more flexible than the large companies can be because they’re stuck with their standard design.”
The business initially operated from Mr Goldring’s kitchen table. Although it now occupies several buildings linked around a courtyard in the centre of Winchester, the family dogs still roam the meeting rooms, greeting visitors.
RJM International has helped industry efforts to cut emissions at some coal-fired power stations to about 15 per cent of their original levels. “No one thought it was possible until the last four, five years,” says Mr Goldring.
At the heart of RJM International’s business is a new design of burner for existing thermal power plants that makes the facilities less polluting. In plants using coal or biomass — the vegetable matter some generators use as an alternative to coal — the burner helps the fuel to break into its constituent elements before burning.
The process, which relies on changing the way air swirls through the furnace, prevents nitrogen in the fuel combining with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides.
The first breakthrough contract for the company came in 2008 when it worked with Eggborough Power Station in North Yorkshire on a project aimed at reducing carbon emissions. RJM International initially converted four of the station’s 24 burners. “It was, like, we’ll do this little trial and see how we get on,” Mr Goldring says. The operator noticed such significant cuts in NOx emissions, says Mr Goldring, that it had them checked independently.
This project and its outcome were welcome because it had previously appeared possible to meet the latest emissions standards only by building expensive machinery to inject ammonia into the flue gases to break down the NOx. “We won a contract at Ferrybridge to do a complete boiler set,” Mr Goldring says, referring to a power station in West Yorkshire that has since closed.
Coal-fired power plants fitted with RJM International’s technology have achieved NOx levels close to 200mg per normal cubic metre of fuel (Nm3), a standard industry measure. When they were originally commissioned, the plants typically produced around 1,500mg per Nm3. “It wasn’t thought that you could get below 500mg at full load in coal before we were able to demonstrate this,” Mr Goldring says.
For the Fengtai project, the company was tackling the different challenge of cutting the emissions of a gas-fired heating plant that was already producing only 140mg of nitrogen oxide per Nm3 of emissions. But new rules required emissions to fall below 30mg of NOx per Nm3.
“We had already produced an ultra-low NOx gas burner design that had been successfully applied to a number of projects, both in Europe and at home,” Mr Goldring says. “We redeveloped that to get even lower emissions to meet this new Beijing standard.”
The results were achieved partly by reducing the temperature of the flame to prevent the formation of NOx from the nitrogen in the air. “We were able to get this amount down below 30mg at the first attempt,” Mr Goldring says.
When the UK announced its plan to end coal-fired generation, RJM International had contracts to help reduce the emissions of more than half the country’s coal-fired stations.
“All these plants that were investing in this new technology have stopped overnight,” Mr Goldring says. “We’ve had to go out and export and show people that we have this ability and try to win work in more difficult environments — like China.”
A list of this year’s winners and a guide to applying for a Queen’s Award are available at www.gov.uk/queens-awards-for-enterprise