The Coal Research Establishment (CRE)

This very brief outline history is an attempt to place on record the work carried out by colleagues at the Coal Research Establishment (CRE).

Currently it draws upon my own memories and understandings, plus information obtained from Wikipedia entries, from the National Archives at Kew and from ex-colleagues Martyn Davis, Peter Sage, Carol Minter and Martin Mordecai.

The author's knowledge of CRE does not begin until autumn 1978, so I am hoping that this historical account will be improved by comment from colleagues who worked there during my own, and earlier times. I had much respect for many of the colleagues who I worked with during my time at CRE (until April 1997) and endorse a belief that CRE representated a globally recognised source of high-quality coal science. Visitors regularly came to CRE from all around the world to witness and discuss our work, while CRE representatives made similar overseas visits to mutual benefit.

CRE Stoke Orchard, around 1987

   


A gathering of overseas CSL licensees, and UK FBC equipment manufacturers, at CRE Stoke Orchard, autumn 1985

A party of Chinese Ministry Engineers visit CRE, funded by The World Bank, in March 1993.
In the background is the CRE Exhibition Hall and behind that are the chimneys of the Test Boiler House

CRE Formation

Various dates and circumstances are mentioned within the earliest references to CRE and the following is a blend of the several accounts available from the sources mentioned in my introduction.

Until the end of 1997, CRE was based at Stoke Orchard, a village to the north-west of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, England. Stoke Orchard is in the borough of Tewkesbury and neighbours Elmstone-Hardwicke, Tredington and Bishop's Cleeve. Colleagues always referred to Stoke Orchard as being near Bishop's Cleeve.

For much of its existence, its postal address and other contact details were:

Coal Research Establishment,
Stoke Orchard,
Cheltenham,
Gloucestershire GL52 4RZ
Telephone: 0242 67 3361
Telex: 43568(CBCRE G)
Fax No: 0242 67 2429

(The Cheltenham telephone code has since changed to 01242).

For the first seven of so years of its existence, the initials CRE stood for Central Research Establishment, before it became known as the Coal Research Establishment in 1955.

The National Archives, at Kew, have a website which contains the earliest date reference as 1946, and claims that CRE (though probably not known by those initials at the time) took over some of the functions and records of the Powell Duffryn Research Laboratory (the South Wales mining company Powell Duffryn Associated Collieries was nationalised into the National Coal Board in 1947).

The Kew Archives contain Annual reports going back to 1st January 1949. Six such reports cover dates to 31st December 1954 and are entitled "National Coal Board, Scientific Department, Central Research Establishment Annual Report". The 7th report, covering 1st January to 31st December 1955, is entitled "National Coal Board, Scientific Department, Coal Research Establishment Annual Report", confirming that CRE, as the Coal Research Establishment, came into existence during 1955.

The National Coal Board (NCB) was the statutory corporation created to run the nationalised coal mining industry in the United Kingdom. It was set up by Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946, and it took over the mines on "vesting day", being 1st January 1947. In 1987 the NCB was renamed the British Coal Corporation (BCC), and its assets were subsequently privatised.

Wikipedia tells us that the Stoke Orchard site was previously a Ministry for Aircraft Production shadow factory run by the Gloster Aircraft Company adjacent to RAF Stoke Orchard. A shadow factory was a factory set up to emulate the manufacturing capabilities of a parent organisation, such that production could continue in the event of the parent company suffering war damage.

Martyn Davis, an ex-CRE colleague, told me that his father-in-law was born and lived in Stoke Orchard village and said that "the Gloster Aircraft Company occupied it during the war (WW2) and they made engines there. They were tested in the site's out-buildings before being taken to the adjacent RAF Stoke Orchard, where completed aircraft took off from the airfield across the road, by the tip".

The Stoke Orchard and Tredington Parish Plan, October 2009, reveals that RAF Stoke Orchard became a base preparing for D-Day (6th June 1944) at which pilots were trained to tow the transport gliders which would carry the troops and equipment over the channel for the Normandy landings. After the D-Day landings the RAF left the site and WarAg (the War Agricultural Committee) took over the hangars as an implement depot and repair centre for their agricultural equipment, used for improving unproductive land.

The research establishment at Stoke Orchard was set up by Dr.W.Idris Jones, formerly (from 1933) the Research Manager for Powell Duffryn Ltd. Idris Jones was appointed Director General of the Scientific Department of the newly formed National Coal Board under Sir Charles Ellis, F.R.S. and within two years he had inaugurated a comprehensive scientific control service and opened the Board's Research Establishment at Stoke Orchard. CRE's Director of Research was Jacob Bronowski. Wikipedia sums up Jacob Bronowski with the words ".......(18th January 1908 – 22nd August 1974); a Polish-Jewish British mathematician, biologist, historian of science, theatre author, poet and inventor. He is best remembered as the presenter and writer of the 1973 BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man, and its accompanying book". Anecdotally, he was best remembered by CRE staff for his development of Bronowski's briquettes, a form of smokeless fuel made from coal dust, but its uncertain whether they were mass produced. Note: it's been suggsted that they were also referred to as 'Bronowskis's bullets', and may have been the forerunner of the 'Homefire' smokeless fuel briquettes which were definitely manufactured commercially, firstly at Birch Coppice pilot plant and later at Coventry, at the 'Coventry Homefire' plant. There’s a photo from Bronowski’s NCB days of him standing with Prince Philip, about to inspect some of his famous briquettes: “Apparently when they actually looked at them, Prince Philip said, ‘They look just like turds!’”

The Coal Research Establishment's work was entirely devoted to the development of new, and improving existing, coal application technologies; all to do with coal utilisation. It had no involvement with mining or the pre-sale preparation of coal. Mining Research was carried out at a 'sister' NCB research establishment entitled MRDE (Mining Research and Development Establishment), located at Bretby, near Burton-on-Trent, Derbyshire. MRDE was responsible for research into, and the testing of, mining equipment and mining procedures, and was appropriately located near to the Midlands, Nottingham, Lancashire and Yorkshire coal fields. Note: I understand that MRDE was an amalgamation of the original Mining Research Establishment at Isleworth (from 1952), and the Central Engineering Establishment at Bretby. These merged in 1969.

CRE, apart from its proximity to the Forest of Dean coalfield which was not part of the NCB, and the South Wales No 6 (Monmouthshire) Area of the SW Division, was remote from any direct coalfield connections or allegiance.

The oft recounted anecdote about the reason for the location of CRE near the spa town of Cheltenham, appears in Steve Wright's book "Fluidised-Bed Combustion, A Clean Coal Combustion Process that Nearly Was".
He wrote "When, in the 1950's, much against its anti-intellectual instincts, the NCB was forced by Her Majesty's Government to indulge in some research, they needed somewhere to build their CRE. The man in charge of the project was Welsh, ... and found his ideal site at Stoke Orchard near Cheltenham. It was part of a vast World War II RAF Maintenance Base, and some of the hangers were still extant at the end of the 20th century. The NCB bought a hanger and some adjacent land and built CRE. The official excuse was that the site was sufficiently far from any coalfield so as not to be influenced by parochial interests. In fact it was closer to South Wales than any other coalfield, provided that one ignored the dying coal areas of Somerset and Forest of Dean. It was also somewhat closer to Cardiff than it was to Hobart House (NCB HQ in London). The man in charge perceived an overwhelming advantage for Stoke Orchard; he could call a meeting at CRE on a Friday afternoon and comfortably travel on to enjoy the rugby at Cardiff Arms Park the next day".

     

CRE; the last 30 years

The 1960s was a painful decade for the British coal industry; colliery closure, a decline in overall output and employment and a depletion of known reserves were characteristic features. The great reconstruction of the 1950s, following coal industry nationalisation, had brought coal production to a 1957 peak at around 228 million tonnes but thereafter decline set in, as imported oil, nuclear power and natural gas began to compete heavily in certain markets; further decline in coal demand was predicted by the 1967 white paper on fuel policy and led to accelerated colliery closures. By 1974, coal annual production was down to around 110 million tonnes.

The fortunes of the UK's coal industry reversed as a consequence of the 1973 oil crisis, which began in October 1973 when the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC, consisting of the Arab members of the OPEC plus Egypt, Syria and Tunisia) proclaimed an oil embargo. The embargo was a response to American involvement in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Six days after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise military campaign against Israel to regain territories lost in the June 1967 Six-Day War, the US supplied Israel with arms. In response to this, OAPEC announced an oil embargo against Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US.

By the end of the embargo, in March 1974, the price of oil had risen from $3 per barrel to nearly $12. The oil crisis had many short-term and long-term effects on global politics and the global economy. It was later called the "first oil shock", followed by the 1979 oil crisis, termed the "second oil shock." The escalation of oil prices permitted a reappraisal of the competitive role of neglected indigenous fuels. Thus, the reluctant retreat from coal, that characterised the 1960s, was halted. The National Coal Board (NCB), backed by the militant mineworkers' union, exploited this sudden reversal of its fortunes to gain government acceptance of its ambitious 1974 'Plan for Coal'. This stressed the long-term importance of coal in British energy policy, arguing that investment in new capacity was vital to equip the industry to sustain and expand production to meet the day, probably in the 1990s, when an 'energy gap' might re-appear when North Sea oil and gas wells began to run dry.

British industry had substantially changed from using coal, its main fuel until the mid-1950s, to relying heavily upon fuel oil during the 1960s when it was relatively low priced, but the 1974 OAPEC 4-fold oil price increase risked UK industry becoming uncompetitive in worldwide markets unless a lower cost fuel could be provided. However, during the previous 20 years, UK industry had become used to automatic clean operation of its combustion processes when burning fuel oil, so coal needed much development to make it acceptable again to industry. It also had to satisfy increasingly stringent stack emission legislation and also general public perception; they would no longer tolerate their local air quality being polluted by dust, or finding chimney smuts on their washing.

The Marketing Department of the NCB (CRE's source of funding) tasked CRE with developing technologies and equipment necessary to achieving an increase in UK coal use from around 110 million tonnes per annum to (optimistically) 150 million tonnes. The electrical power generating industry (the nationalised CEGB at the time), consumed around 85 million tonnes per annum and this was unlikely to change unless by demonstration of new, environmentally clean processes, operating at higher thermodynamic efficiency. One such demonstration process was the application of pressurised fluidised bed coal combustion within a combined gas turbine and steam cycle. Originally developed at the BCURA laboratories between the late 1960s and early 1970s, a large scale prototype was built at Grimethorpe colliery, in S.Yorkshire, from 1977, which was initially directed by various co-ordinating bodies and came under the day-to-day management of the NCB-CRE in 1990. But such major R&D projects have a long lead time before they could ever make a material increase in coal sales. Shorter term opportunities for additional coal sales lay within the industrial, commercial and domestic heating sectors, and also the iron and steel industry.

Some success was achieved in encouraging coal use, and coal production steadily rose during the years to 1980, when it peaked at 130 million tonnes. But unrest and subsequent strike action by miners belonging to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) during the early 1980s resulted in renewed sales decline which was never halted. By the end of 1994, when the coal industry was again privatised, UK coal production was down to 50 million tonnes. In 2013 it was down to a mere 13 million tonnes.

CRE's success needs to be measured by the coal use increase that was achieved up to the time of the 1984-85 miners' strike. Ignoring the coal use decline due to pending strike action, UK coal sales averaged 125 million tonnes during the 8 years following implementation of the 1974 Plan for Coal, a 15 million tonnes per annum increase.

Organisation

The first Director of CRE was Jacob Bronowski. Subsequently (ref: 1961 Colliery Guardian year book) Dr.D.C.Rhys Jones was Director, a post he held from at least 1960 to 1962. He authored a paper in New Scientist magazine for 7th May 1959 describing new methods of producing smokeless fuels with which the Board were experimenting. It's believed that during CRE's earliest years, its R&D focus was on coking coals, smokeless fuel and gasification. Later Directors were Joe Gibson, David Dainton and, in the late 1980s, James (Jim) Harrison. Finally there was John Whitehead, who had the unenviable task of preparing CRE for the inevitable effect that would ensue from the privatisation of its parent nationalised coal industry. In preparartion for the privatisation of the NCB, the industry had become known as British Coal Corporation (BCC), in 1987.

CRE was divided into various Branches, each with a Branch Head and Deputy Branch Head. Above them came a Deputy Director and finally the Director himself. Staffing levels varied but, best I recall, was typically 350 (though it is understood this figure may have peaked nearer to 500 in earlier decades). A Finance and Administration Department handled all financial transactions (though not staff wages) and included the staff Personnel Department, later to become known as Human Resources.

The Scientific Branches in the early 1980s (best I recall) were as follows:
Appliance Development Branch (AD) was responsible for the practical development of new industrial and commercial coal combustion systems. AD Branch Staff were based exclusively at CRE, though certain developments were installed at trial sites and the AD Branch personnel responsible for their development spent time at the trial sites setting them up and assessing their performance.
Industrial Development Branch (ID) worked closely with AD Branch. Its responsibilities were exclusively away from CRE, though for many Branch Members, CRE was their office base. Other ID Branch staff were out-stationed where they could be more regularly and conveniently in contact with trial sites. These trial sites were generally large industrial installations, often sold by an equipment manufacturer to a coal customer who knew that he could rely upon NCB-CRE for support during the initial years of his (novel) equipment being installed.
AD and ID Branches overlapped in many areas, especially in the major development of shallow fluidised-bed combustion, as applied to industrial boilers and furnaces (hot gas generators).
Domestic Heating Branch developed and type-tested (often for manufacturers) home heating appliances. These almost always burned some form of natural (anthracitic) or man-made (smokeless) fuel, in glass fronted room heaters, or hopper-fed central heating stoves. They also developed a form of room-heater that could be fired on bituminous coal, called a 'smoke eater'. External (to CRE) customer trial sites were monitored for 'real world' information and, by the late 1980s, two semi-detached houses were built on CRE's site where similar testing and sales demonstrations could take place.
Environmental Control Branch (EC), as its name implies, studied coal-based environmental impact. Mostly the work related to stack emissions, both particulate and gaseous, but it also investigated measures to make mining and combustion residues benign.
Gasification Branch developed efficient means of converting coal into fuel gas, either for direct application to industrial processes or as part of a combined gas and steam turbine power-generation 'topping' cycle. Coke oven gas and mines gas were already well established areas of commercial combustible 'gas from coal' sales operated by the NCB - BCC, and Gasification Branch sought to extend the market for such sales, especially in anticipation of an eventual decline in North Sea natural-gas supplies. Studies of coals suitable for use within the iron and steel industry, either for manufacturing metallurgical coke or for direct blast furnace injection, were also undertaken.
Liquefaction Branch studied solvent extraction of chemicals from crushed coal that were then used in the manufacture of liquid fuels, including a synthetic petrol for motor vehicles. It is claimed that CRE became home to a Ford Torino fitted with an experimental engine capable of using this oil as a demonstration vehicle, but I never saw such a car. However, a lawnmower driven by Sir Derek Ezra (then Chairman of the NCB), a dumper truck driven by John Moore (Under-Secretary of State for Energy; 1979-1983), and Automobile Association (AA) vans in the Lord Mayor of London's procession, are more substantive claims. Despite the rise in oil price during the 1970's, coal liquefaction remained an expensive process (at that time ~ 1980s). Nonetheless, construction of a 2.5 tonnes/day pilot plant was started in late 1986 at Point of Ayr Colliery, on the Dee Estuary, N.Wales. But the decision to build this pilot plant came too late, commissioning was protracted, and it was 1992 before meaningful test work began. It was closed at the end of 1994.
Project Assessment & Development Branch (PADB) studied new concepts to ascertain their likely benefit to the NCB-BCC.
Analysis and Basic Studies Branch (A&BS) encompassed a full range of analytical procedures, both physical and chemical, and carried out fundamental studies, often supported by EEC funding. The analytical services, including metallurgical and coal ash constituent corrosion and fouling, were offered as a support role to the work of the several 'front-end' Branches (see previous).
Within A&BS (?) were also:
Physics Dept, which gave support to the front-end Branches, often by designing, constructing and operating cold models; they ensured that modelling techniques took account of the differences between those in the model and those pertaining to full scale application. Results were analysed and reports made to the Branch for which the support had been requested.
Mathematics Dept was another support service that provided high level mathematical modelling. Also, with the advent of micro-computers, it took on the role of IT support.
Photographic Dept produced high quality photographs as prints and slides, both of activities at CRE site and also at external locations where development work was in progress. They also prepared schematics as 35mm slides to enable easy explanation of processes during presentations.
Engineering Branch gave an on-site service to those Branches involved in the design, construction and installation of CRE-based test rigs and large scale demonstration projects. They were also responsible for the overall maintenance of the site and the supply of services (heat, light and power).
Library services were to a high standard. The CRE library contained a fully card indexed collection of text books, reports and periodicals. Any reports that were referenced in external papers, and were not already in the library, were obtained from international sources.

But the above Branch structure is only a 'snap-shot' relevant to the early 1980s; it was 'fluid' and changed significantly over time to reflect the industry's need to stay abreast of sales opportunities, arising technologies and environmental concerns. There was much more emphasis on carbonisation and briquetting through until the early 1970s, followed by industrial combustion in the 1970s and 1980s and advanced 'clean coal' power-generation development in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, which continued up to the time of CRE's ultimate closure in 1997. Throughout this period, environmental factors played an ever more important role.

The 1989-1990 CRE Annual Report lists the site's structure as:-

Directors
James Harrison - Director
John Whitehead - Deputy Director
William (Bill) Kaye - Assistant Director
John Topper - Research Manager (Project Assessment and Development)
Steve Dawes - Research Manager (Power Generation)
Mike Burden - Staff and Administration Manager

Branches then consisted of:
Supply and Contracts
Finance
Personnel/Secretariat
Engineering
Planning
Power Generation
Science Branch. In 1989-1990 this comprised three Groups, namely Physics Group (including Mathematics), Basic Studies and Environmental Science.
Analysis and Testing
Assessment
Domestic and Commercial Development
Industrial Development
Fuels and Polymers
Combustion Systems Ltd; licensing fluidised bed combustion

It is interesting that neither Gasification nor Coal Liquefaction featured, any longer, as standalone entities. Gasification became part of Power Generation Branch, who were studying the gasification of coal within air-blown Circulating Fluidised Bed Combustion (CFBC) as part of their Advanced Power Generation R&D. Liquefaction (essentially by then carried out at the Point of Ayr demonstration plant) is thought to have received CRE support via Science Branch's Basic Studies Group, with further support from Analysis and Testing Branch.

Documents giving an in-sight into the work at CRE around this time, can be downloaded as PDFs here:

Privatisation and Closure

The story now moves on to 1993, by which time, to quote Steve Wright, "It was clear to all that with the sale of the rump of the coal mining industry to the 'Private Sector', CRE could not continue in anything like its existing form. If there was no UK coal industry to speak of, an establishment the size of CRE Stoke Orchard, with 300 to 400 [250 by then] employed, would be difficult to sustain or justify".

In mid-June 1994, John Whitehead made an announcement about CRE's future. It was proving impossible to reconcile the various functions of CRE and therefore it would have to be split. Those areas of business which were thought to have a long-term future (five years or more?) would be bundled into a new company called 'CRE Group Ltd', a subsidiary company of British Coal, for which bids would be invited from the Private Sector. The new company would have a portfolio of activities including consultancy, technical support services and small-scale research.


A CRE corporate gift - a Parker pen in a plastic case
     
The area of CRE activity that would not be privatised was its advanced power generation R&D programme, by then no longer known as the British Coal Topping Cycle but instead called the Air Blown Gasification Cycle (ABGC). This latter pilot-scale research needed to be completed, and to accomplish this a new 'Coal Technology Development Division (CTDD)' was created. No long-term future was seen for CTDD; any further large-scale research for ABGC would have to be carried out by interested industrial partners.

The split into CRE Group and CTDD was timed to occur on 1st September 1994. The Liquefaction demonstration plant at Point of Ayr, North Wales, came into CTDD, with a similar short-term future.

The Stoke Orchard workforce was divided into three parts. The 'A team' was allocated to CRE Group, the 'B team' to CTDD and a 'C Team' were offered more or less immediate redundancy. Very roughly, the approximate remaining 300 workforce (some had taken voluntary redundancy in the preceding years) were apportioned equally into three groups of 100.

The remnant of British Coal's Coal Research Establishment, namely CTDD, finally closed on 31st December 1997. The industry-wide administrative functions of British Coal were transferred to a new authority, the Coal Authority, and all economic assets were privatised. The English mining operations were merged with RJB Mining to form UK Coal plc. British Coal was wound up on 26th January 1997.

CRE Group was initially sold to IMC Group Holdings Ltd and carried out environmental consultancy, small-scale research, environmental monitoring, and industrial support. Overseas consultancy within China, Russia and Eastern Europe, although initially intensive, dwindled and finally came to an end around 2000. Meanwhile, the total CRE site had been sold for housing, but with CRE/IMC retaining a long lease for its part of the site, being within the 'new' office block to the right of the site entrance. CTDD occupied the main hanger building opposite, though CTDD was already (or near to) being closed by the time of the site's sale.

CRE Group was subsequently sold to Casella and became Casella CRE Energy, a trading division of Casella Group Ltd and formerly EMC Environment Engineering Ltd., concentrating on pollution monitoring. One consultancy they carried out using CRE 'know-how' was a 2001 project, submitted in April 2002, entitled "Report on Air Quality in the County of Gloucestershire".

For several years a very successful part of this privatised structure was the environmental emissions monitoring team. They obtained their UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service; formerly NAMAS, National Measurement Accreditation Service) accreditation and used 2 mobile laboratories (6.5tonne converted Mercedes-Benz 608D integral vans) to house an impressive array of continuous stack gas analysers. Their industrial monitoring services were sold nationwide.

Particulate monitoring was done manually by means of in-duct iso-kinetic sampling probes, while specialised measuring of emissions such as dioxins and heavy metals, was carried out using equipment partly developed by the team.

This remnant of CRE's EC Branch, which became part of Casella CRE Energy when CRE was privatised, were subsequently based at Mitcheldean, Gloucestershire, and worked within Environmental Scientifics Group Ltd (ESG), whose head office is at Bretby Business Park, Ashby Road, Burton upon Trent. But at the time of writing (August 2015), the Mitcheldean site of ESG seems no longer be in existence.

One small contingent of ex-CRE employees continued to work from the Stoke Orchard site until the end of May 2015. Gastec at CRE Ltd took over the previous domestic-heating laboratory and converted it to testing gas appliances. The Gastec group of companies provides bespoke services to clients from the gas landing point through to the burner tip and beyond, from centres in the UK, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Italy, China and Turkey. UK clients access these services from GASTEC at CRE Ltd (GaC). In addition to energy consultancy, GaC provides training and ACS (Accredited Certification Scheme) assessment for gas operatives and certification of a range of gas-fired appliances to European and other standards. From 1st June 2015, this small organisation, now named Kiwa Gastec, opened a new Training Centre, installed with a wide range of appliances, and offer Industrial Boiler Assessment (IGAS) as well as their previous domestic appliance assessment. They are still located on the Stoke Road, but a short distance closer to Bishops Cleeve (almost opposite Cheltenham North Rugby Club).

Kiwa Gastec, née Gastec at CRE Ltd, is run by Mark Crowther, who was previously Head of CRE's Domestic and Commercial Development Branch (from 1989). It was Mark who finally turned out the lights and locked the doors of the main office building at CRE on Friday 29th May 2015, see pictures below.

     

   

CRE's Legacy ~ A Personal Statement

For over 200 years, coal from UK mines fuelled its industrial revolution, but the end of the 20th century was also the end of the age of coal in the UK. Whether this was for political, economic or environmental reasons, is open to debate - no doubt a combination of all three. Coal is certainly the highest CO2 emitter of the fossil fuels, per unit of useful energy, but environmentalists sometimes give the impression that only coal is responsible for global warming, while no fossil fuel is exempt. And transporting supposedly CO2 neutral biomass fuels long distances, but using fossil fuel as the motive energy, seems an odd alternative.

When I joined the coal industry, in 1978, one of the earliest statistics I learned was that, at the (then) current rate of usage (let's say 120 million tonnes per annum), the UK still had 300 years of this indigenous fuel reserve. But once a mine is closed, it cannot be re-opened, as the maintenance needed in order to keep a mine safe must be carried out as an ongoing activity. The coal is still there, but accessing it again would require substantial investment.

That the UK's coal is mostly available through costly deep-mining technology is the Achilles' Heel of the UK coal resource. Several countries, with large areas of unpopulated land, operate huge open-cast coal mines, where coal can be extracted at significantly lower cost than from UK deep mines. Even with long haul transportation, imported open-cast coal is often the cheaper option. There are also factors such as low sulphur content (avoiding costly emissions abatement equipment) and low chlorine content (an indicator of a coal's tendency to foul heat transfer surfaces) which can also favour imported coals.

While it is comforting to know that one's country has 300 years of indigenous coal reserve, we live and work within an ever more competitive global economy. Speculating about long term problems that may emerge from relying upon imported fuels, while ignoring its immediate economic advantages, leave one's manufacturing base vulnerable to overseas competition. This is especially true in a developed country where labour costs are high, since labour is a greater component when burning coal than with other fossil fuels. And the environmental argument against coal, while perhaps over-stated, needs to be addressed, especially in the context of meeting EU and International obligations.

The scientists and engineers who worked at CRE have left a legacy of well researched information that may find application in the future; if not directly to coal, it may have a relevance to other technologies yet to emerge. Whatever its future usefulness, the information from CRE, and also from BCURA, Grimethorpe and Point of Ayr, has been preserved and is stored in the library of North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (NEIMME), Neville Hall, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, NE1 1SE. As it says on its Home web page "We don't deep mine for coal anymore but the NE still leads the world in keeping the industry safe".

Steve Wright, in his polemical book on the Grimethorpe PFBC development, says that "Apparently, the NCB (as it was at nationalisation) was the only nationalised industry named in the Public Records Act. Every scrap of paper had theoretically to be offered to the National Archives of the Public Records Office (PRO) based in Kew, before further disposal. Once CRE Group became a wholly owned subsidiary it was no longer covered by the Public Records Act. However, all its reports and files prior to the Act were required. It was finally established that the PRO only really wanted copies of reports and some 'important' files". These latter were provided to Kew and copies made so that "In fact all the files went into the British Coal archive (NEIMME) for storage on behalf of the PRO".

One important (to this author) set of documents that, to the best of his knowledge, were destined not to end up at the NEIMME, was the Combustion Systems Ltd (CSL) Fluidised Bed Combustion (FBC) Design Manual. This multi-component, loose leaf (for amendment purposes) Design Manual became part of the Intellectual Property contained within the sale of CRE Group Ltd to IMC Group Holdings Ltd; presumably because it was seen to be of commercial value, since its contents had been licensed (for a fee) to a number of organisations worldwide, especially throughout the 1980s.

In 2005, the author approached the small remnant BCURA coal research funding organisation based in Cheltenham, for their advice on whether this Manual might be rescued and put into the public domain. It encompassed most of the information on shallow bed FBC from the work of CRE's ID & AD Branches between 1974 and 1994, plus earlier deep bed FBC, including oil burning, carried out at the Leatherhead Laboratories of BCURA from the autumn of 1963. Steve Wright, who was 'in' on the very beginnings of UK FBC R&D, recollects this clearly in the opening chapter of his book.

Casella CRE Energy (who owned CRE Group by 2005) were approached on whether they had any objections to the CSL Manual being retrieved back into public ownership and they kindly agreed, since they had no foreseeable use for its technology. Thence, by private funding made available by Dr William (Bill) Kaye, previously a Deputy Director of CRE in charge of AD & ID Branches (plus the Domestic Heating Laboratory), scattered remains of the Manual were pieced together and, by 2008, made available as a searchable CD containing a series of PDF files.

Its 'Foreword' file announces:
"The British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) wishes to acknowledge and thank Casella CRE Energy Ltd (a part of Casella Group Ltd) for giving their permission for BCURA to transfer the CSL Fluidised Combustion Process Design Manual into the public domain by submitting this Manual to the BCC/BCURA Library in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and by submitting copies of this document to other suitable publicly accessible locations to include the libraries of selected UK Universities. BCURA Registered Offices, The BCURA Company Secretary, c/o Gardner Brown Ltd, Calderwood House, 7, Montpellier Parade, Cheltenham, Glos. GL50 1UA".

The CSL Manual is publically available on-line at the University of Bradford library.


This page last updated: 14th August 2015