Getting to know the industry

Nic 8150
Being a trainee in Elkem is a unique privilege, and no trainee periods are the same. In this post, I will try to give a brief overview of what one period can be like. During my first trainee placement, I am working at the silicon smelting plant in Thamshavn, Orkanger. My stay has given me a steep learning curve with great colleagues, and it will be difficult to say goodbye when I move to my next location and new exciting assignments already in a few weeks.

Picture description: Thamshavn plant.

This blog post was written by first year trainee Bård Sve Wallentinsen.

One of the best parts of being a trainee is that part of my job description is to learn and develop. My stay at Thamshavn started with a couple of weeks of general onboarding, tours of the different departments and extensive safety training. I've never worked in heavy industry before, much less in a smelting plant, so I was allowed to spend four very instructive weeks working shifts with the process operators and technicians. I received a warm welcome, and my new colleagues were both highly knowledgeable in their fields and eager to teach me what they knew. I had a steep and exciting learning curve, leaving me with a better understanding of both the furnace processes and the day-to-day work and challenges of the plant.

At Elkem Thamshavn, clean quartz rock is turned into silicon in two giant smelting furnaces. Silicon has essential properties for a wide variety of industries, and no doubt, silicon and silica produced by Elkem is found in a surprisingly large number of products in your home. A high electric current raises the temperature in the furnace to around 2,000 degrees, and a reduction chemical reaction with carbon from coal and coke creates molten silicon. More than a quarter million tonnes of raw materials is delivered to the plant each year, and is turned into more than 50,000 tonnes of high quality silicon metal, as well as 25,000 tonnes of microsilica, a valuable by-product.

During my stay, I'm working in the technical department, which is responsible for maintenance, repairs and modifications at the plant, assisted by various contractors hired periodically for larger and specialized jobs. The maintenance philosophy in Elkem centres on reliability of the furnace and its machinery, as well as all the equipment around it. The goal is to limit maintenance shut downs to one or two instances a year, with only small "pit stops" of a few minutes or hours for cleaning and minor servicing. A few examples of the machinery requiring maintenance are:

  • More than 30 pumps, drawing around 2,200 kW of power, moving several thousand litres of cooling water every second. (For each of these pumps, there is one or more backup pump with the same capacity in standby mode).
  • A dozen compressors, requiring 1,700 kW, generating compressed air to equipment and tools at various workshops.
  •  60 automatic conveyor belt systems, for handling raw materials, which altogether cover a cumulative distance of nearly two kilometres.
  • About 40 overhead and other cranes with lifting capacities between one and 25 tonnes.
  • Dozens of hydraulic generators powering a huge number of hydraulic actuating cylinders at all part of the plant.

From start to finish: raw materials are unloaded by crane onto a conveyor, and exit the plant as silicon and microsilica packed in bags ranging from 25kg to 1t.

In addition, of course the two furnaces themselves draw more than 65 MW of power, creating temperatures ranging from a few hundred to two thousand degrees, and involving a large and intricate array of complex components. On top of all that, we have a complex energy recovery power plant, generating about 20MW of electric power, as well as district heating to the nearby town of Orkanger, from the exhaust gas of the furnaces. For comparison, the electric stoves we use to heat our rooms at home generally use in the order of 0,5 – 2 kW, so you can probably imagine the electricians here also have their hands full. All equipment needs continuous monitoring and maintenance of various degrees, and each mechanic or electrician in the technical department is generally in charge of the maintenance in one area or of one type of machinery at the plant, supported by a team of engineers.

My job in this department is to review parts of the systematic maintenance of the equipment of the plant, and to assist in implementing new enterprise resource software, which will simplify maintenance planning. While my background is in mechanical engineering, I've specialized in energy and process technology, so I honestly don't know much about maintenance. Fortunately, my mentor, Tom Ivar, started in Elkem as a trainee himself, and so he knows very well how to support a learning trainee. Perhaps more importantly in this case, he is also an expert both on the theory of maintenance in business and on converting that theory into real-life applications. Between my work with him and with the technicians, it's a perfect way to get to know most parts of the workings of a silicon smelting plant, an invaluable experience for later positions in Elkem. A general day for me is split between spending a lot of time in the field, learning from the mechanics and operators, time studying and learning about the different equipment and maintenance requirements and philosophy, mapping and forecasting upcoming maintenance, as well as meetings with my mentor, technicians and process owners to agree on improvements.

The steam turbine generating electric power from furnace exhaust heat.

I have been working at Elkem Thamshavn for more than half a year now, and already my first outplacement of the trainee programme is ending. Each rotation lasts around 8 months, and so sometime around Easter, I will be moving to a new assignment. We are currently two mechanical engineers in the trainee programme, and no less than ten business units in Elkem proposed to host one of us for the upcoming period. It was something of a "luksusproblem" to choose between so many exciting assignments, but in the end, my first choice was clear: Elkem Technology in Oslo. My future mentor is the corporate manager for energy efficiency, and is involved in a large number of projects at Elkem's plants, and I will be involved in a few of these in various ways depending in large part on my interest. In addition to the ever-ongoing process of bettering efficiency and reducing energy losses and emissions at all Elkem plants, there is a number of larger projects taking place to make significant advances and improve sustainability and our environmental footprint. You can take a look at a small selection of the ongoing research in the following link:

It will not be easy to choose which of a multitude of projects to get involved with, but clearly the future looks bright! Apart from my next rotation, I am also looking forward to attending the weeklong Silicon Summer School at the University of Reykjavik this summer, and to welcome the next generation of trainees in the fall.