THE heart of a County Durham industrial estate may, at first glance, seem an unlikely place to be the base for a world-renowned high pressure gas meter testing facility.

However, the fact is that the site, in Chilton, near Ferryhill, services clients from all geographies and has a long trackrecord in testing and research.

Developed by what was then British Gas in 1981, the DNV GL Flow Centre has been at the heart of pioneering research into gas meter technology ever since, with some innovations so ground-breaking they are still used today.

The 10-acre outdoor site is home to a range of unique test facilities including, at 70 metres long, some of the longest test pipelines in the world.

It also has the benefit of being connected directly to the National Gas Transmission System, which has a base adjacent to the site, feeding gas from Aberdeen southwards.

Gas is, in effect, ‘borrowed’ to flow around the test lines and then fed back into the system, and can be used at pressures up to 50 bar (a car tyre is usually just two bar).

Flow Centre manager Dave Shepherd runs the business, with Alistair Milne, operations manager.

The facility is able to deliver full-scale gas industry equipment trials as well as its core business of meter gas flow and calibration testing.

Mr Shepherd said: “We are very proud of our facility here in County Durham.

“I like to think of this site as a hidden gem, packed full of assets and bringing blue chip companies’ work to the region which might not otherwise come here.

“Our type of test site won’t ever be built again due to the tremendous expense it involves.

“This site cost in the region of £10m to build 35 years ago, as you need such a substantial range of test lines to cater for each customers’ requirements.”

To deliver a wide range of contracts, the Flow Centre site has ten different test rigs with diverse capabilities and has a loyalty to the area sourcing equipment locally such as new pipework from North Shields businesses.

However, getting gas out of the ground is not always straightforward with, on occasions, sand being drawn up from rock formations in the gas causing damage to subsea components.

But the Flow Centre undertakes what Mr Shepherd calls real world testing, where sand is used to blast components to simulate lifetime exposure to these conditions to ensure suitable performance of the part.

For all gas industry businesses, it is imperative their meters are accurate and calibrated correctly, not only for their own good practice, but to meet the gas sector’s stringent regulatory requirements.

The Flow Centre has the only vertical test rig for subsea safety valves in the world.

This means a test can be carried out on valves to simulate operational conditions of several hundred metres below the sea bed.

The vertical rig has prime position on the Flow Centre site, standing 15 metres high, above the network of horizontal test lines which fill the County Durham base.

Mr Shepherd said: “This vertical test facility is used to check slam shut subsea safety valves and basically makes sure the valve is able to do its work, in an emergency, should it need to close while working several hundred metres below the sea bed.

“It got its name due to the massive thump it makes as the valve slams shut just like a door caught by the wind.”

Due to the importance of being calibrated correctly, meters are delivered to the Flow Centre from clients all over the world who trust their equipment will be in safe hands and tested with low uncertainty.

Mr Shepherd said: “We once had a filter sent from the US, and tested it for six hours before it was sent all the way back and we have received meters from as far away as Australia.

“The site prides itself on being flexible to meet customer requirements.”

One of the largest scale jobs carried out was a pair of 40”

diameter Venturi meters for a power station in China.

At the other end of the scale, meters are tested and calibrated for small-scale apparatus such as rotameters, which are part of the breathing systems used in hospitals.

The complexity of ensuring the gas flow given to patients is accurate at very low flow rates can be just as challenging as the extremely high flow rates.

Due to the service the company offers, it wins a lot of repeat business, with ten per cent from the North-East, 60 per cent from the wider UK and 30 per cent from the rest of the world, places like Australia, the Far East, and some unusual locations like the Sakhalin Islands between mainland Russia and Japan.”

A lthough equipment is tested for clients worldwide, one major customer is Solartron ISA, a leading supplier of wellhead flow meters for the oil and gas industry, based in Shildon, also County Durham, which designs and makes equipment used for flow applications across the globe.

Mr Shepherd has also identified potential for more variable flow testing in the future.

He said: “Historically, the centre had British Gas sister test sites near Newcastle, where large-scale low and medium pressure gas flow testing could be carried out.”

Regrettably, these facilities stopped operating several years ago.

However, Mr Shepherd believes there is now a growing a market for meter testing at these lower pressures, as this is what is needed for testing biogas and shale gas, produced by fracking.

If this ambition is realised it will substantially boost the income from the business, which already brings in between anything from £10,000 to £50,000 a day, depending on the complexity of the testing.

It also offers more unusual testing services, but no less important.

It can train gas engineers to identify gas leaks with precise training on gas smells or gas rhinology.

It also offers metering training simulating practical onthe-job scenarios where engineers have the chance to test their competency at finding faults as if it was the real world.

Mr Shepherd said: “On an average day, a tenth of UK gas demand can flow around our site.

“As well as this, most UK domestic gas typically flows through at least five items tested at the centre, whether that is a downhole safety valve or a gas flow meter, before ending up in a house cooker or gas boiler.”

The headquarters of DNV GL is based in Norway with a total workforce globally of over 14,000, 1,500 of which work in the UK.

There is another testing and research centre at Spadeadam, Cumbria, performing fullscale hazardous tests and explosions, plus offices on Silverlink Business Park, Newcastle, and 15 other locations around the UK.

Susan Anderson, relationBASE: An aerial view of the DNV GL Flow Centre, which is one of the largest natural gas test facilities worldwide ship manager at the North East England Chamber of Commerce, praised the company’s achievements, adding it was a credit to the region’s industrial landscape.

She said: “This business is a great example of the ground-breaking innovations, which have been developed in our region.

“DNV GL’s service is a huge asset for our region and really helps put us on the world stage.

“The fact their clients, many long-standing, ship their meters to be tested from the far corners of the globe is testament to the level of service they receive.”