Digital cameras spot the flaws

Other companies will gain access to Shell’s digital high-speed photography expertise, following the oil giant’s decision to allow its research division’s camera team to seek outside work. The team, called Merlin, will use a £100,000 high-speed digital camera to instantly replay images of fast-moving equipment such as engine pistons and turbine blades in slow motion, […]

Other companies will gain access to Shell’s digital high-speed photography expertise, following the oil giant’s decision to allow its research division’s camera team to seek outside work.

The team, called Merlin, will use a £100,000 high-speed digital camera to instantly replay images of fast-moving equipment such as engine pistons and turbine blades in slow motion, allowing engineers to analyse flow patterns, faults and failures.

Merlin’s Memory Cam CI has a 2,000-frames-per-second specification and can download images directly to a computer.

`The previous technology was based on 16mm film,’ said Merlin cameraman Chris Townsend. `This involved setting up and lighting the camera shot, and waiting days for the film to be developed. If the lighting or exposure was not right, the process would have to be repeated.’

The digital camera technology has been proven at Shell. `There was a problem in a bottling plant where a capping machine was missing bottles,’ said Townsend. `When the line was slowed down, everything ran fine, but high-speed photos showed that when speed picked up, centrifugal forces pushed a loose mechanical linkage.’

Shell has used the camera to detect patterns in flowing fluids giving rise to cavitation – bubbles caused by turbulence which can damage turbine blades or pipe surfaces. The device also allowed a 3.6 metre diameter turbine to be inspected in slow motion, without altering its speed or shutting it down.

Merlin plans to move from Shell’s Thornton research site in Cheshire to a business park near Chester. `We’ll charge about £1,000 a day for our service,’ said Townsend, `but if you consider that it could cost millions of pounds to shut a refinery down to investigate a vibrating shaft or turbine, it’s worth it.’