At the core of the Glass Futures Global Centre of Excellence being built in St Helens, UK is the 30 t/d R&D furnace. We hear from Ernesto Cattaneo* and Peter Liggett** about this major milestone.
Glass Futures, the UK non-for-profit organisation being created to construct a Global Centre of Excellence in St Helens has appointed Italian glass engineers Stara Glass to design its 30 tonnes per day experimental Research & Development furnace.
Stara Glass, based in Genoa confirmed it will now be joining Glass Futures as an Affiliate Member to begin looking at its technology development.
Glass Futures is aiming to create a facility to connect the glass industry and academia to deliver exportable R&D and innovation, as well as training and up-skilling opportunities, ensuring glass making’s future is built on sustainable, recyclable, carbon-zero products.
We hear from both sides to understand more about the project, and why Stara Glass was chosen.
Why was Stara Glass chosen to be awarded the Glass Futures furnace design contract?
Peter Liggett (PL): Following a rigorous procurement process, Stara were short listed during the technical evaluation by Glass Futures and our design partners with the submission of a comprehensive engineering package that scored highly when compared to our evaluation criteria.
When the technical short list submissions were reviewed by our technical steering committee Stara Glass had the right attitude and provided good value for money.
Stara Glass is a good fit with Glass Futures having familiarity with R&D activity.
We particularly liked their approach to collaborative working and preparedness to share their expertise with us and our partners.
How proud are you to have won the contract to design the furnace for Glass Futures?
Ernesto Cattaneo (EC): Extremely proud, however we are overall excited to be able to study such an extensive project.
I have been in glass furnace R&D since 2007 and an experimental furnace has always been an unrealisable and unreasonable dream.
Stara Glass craves innovation, the day we have been informed about the Glass Futures project, we obviously wanted to participate, and when the opportunity arose to run for the design tender, we knew we wanted to do a superb job and design this furnace.
Did you receive tenders from companies from around the world? If so are you able to go into more detail about how many companies submitted a tender?
PL: Tenders were received from companies around the world and we found the level of submissions to be exceptionally high during the tender process from each and every company, which speaks volume to the professionalism and willingness for the industry to take on new challenges.
Will the furnace design be different to a conventional furnace?
EC: The furnace is meant to allow the experts to analyse the activity of a real melter and to obtain crucial information on the physics, chemical and technological events that happen at those temperatures.
It will have additional features allowing tests on materials, glass and equipment, there will be few peculiarities in its geometry, but an inexperienced eye may be unable to spot the subtle differences.
What makes this project different to a normal furnace build?
PL: The capital equipment included in our global centre of excellence for sustainable manufacture of glass must bridge the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) gap between research activity and full commercial implementation.
The unit is small with a broad technical scope to allow the widest practical range of tests and trials to be conducted.
We will be operating our process in areas that would not be tenable as a commercial operation where the risk of failure is prohibitively expensive so we can carry out cutting edge R&D which cannot be done in the industry today.
Can you describe some of the details of this particular furnace in regards to its R&D functions?
EC: Glass Futures intends to test different types of glass, different types of fuel, new materials, more advanced automation concepts, a different utilisation of the electrical boosting, and more than a few other things.
We are in the process of defining a priority list of all we want to test and optimise the furnace design as a consequence.
Have you ever had to design a furnace like this before?
EC: No, in all ways, because Glass Futures is not a company of glass makers, it is a company of glass technicians and scientists, like myself and many of my colleagues.
A glassmaker expects the highest reliability, Glass Futures expects innovation; a glassmaker expects the most cost-effective job, Glass Futures expects to take time for the concept design, in order to optimise all features.
The glassmaker needs to produce glass and doesn’t want issues, Glass Futures wants the solutions for the glassmaker’s issues.
For a glass furnace R&D enthusiast, it feels like being a driver that moves from the highway to a race track; although I actually felt that feeling already, from when Stara Glass introduced Centauro on the market, it was the first time we made something big and new, and we all immediately understood that we needed to keep that attitude, in order to step up in the glass market.
What skills/expertise will Stara Glass bring to this project?
EC: We will bring our skilled designers, innovators, technicians and draughts persons, our own field-developed design software and our multi-project experience, our design procedures and criteria, but the very first thing we intend to bring is a genuine humbleness: we have the unique opportunity of designing a furnace together with many international authorities of the field, it’s an unparalleled reason of pride to be one of the “thinking heads” in this furnace design, but we do not expect to spend more time speaking than listening.
What excites you about this project?
EC: The long-term excitement is about what we will be able to do with the furnace. But now, I am really enjoying the design sessions.
We meet once a week online, for two hours and we face every design topic, in order. We are commonly more than twenty and everyone has at least one particular skill.
It feels like an Atlantis of furnace design, we are being very effective, mostly because the work environment is free from tension, often we share a laughter, almost every time we are so into it that we forget to take a break.
When do you think the project will start and how long do you think it will take to complete?
EC: The pre-design, the phase where we decide altogether how this furnace has to be designed, is ongoing and will end in a couple of months. From that point, we can draw, with the usual timings.
Stara Glass mentioned the furnace design is due to end in a couple of months, when do you think the furnace development will be finished?
PL: The basic outline for the first furnace to be installed will be completed in the coming weeks. The detailed design will be completed by Stara Glass over the next few months in close collaboration with Glass Futures and our members, which we are inviting more to join this globally unique collaboration.
It is expected that the initial furnace will be operated for a few years and then the scope of requirements may well be redefined to make sure we are challenging the correct TRL gaps most relevant at that time.
In reality the furnace and its ancillary equipment will continuously be reviewed and developed where necessary to match the needs of our clients and the global glass manufacturing community.
The unit will not be operated continuously and I anticipate lots of capex upgrades between campaigns for this initial unit and future furnace designs.
Will the Covid-19 pandemic affect anything in the short to medium term for this project?
EC: I think glass industry in general, and this team in particular, have been able to overcome most constrains, yet the constrains exist.
Field visit and in-person meetings would probably allow to speed up and control better the whole process.
Also, seeing face-to-face and sharing a lunch with the people you have to agree decisions with, is a part of human experience we all long to rediscover soon.
Will any other companies be involved in the building of this furnace?
PL: Our procurement process is transparent and open and we expect companies will be invited to tender for the construction works towards the end of 2021.
* Head of Computing and Innovation Projects, Stara Glass, Genoa, Italy
** Capital Projects Manager,
Glass Futures, St Helens, UK