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The rise and fall of the gasometer
August 2008

Gas holder - Greenwich, London - August 2008
Energy is the news. At present, the UK can only store around 4% of its annual gas consumption, compared to Germany and France who can store over 20%.

Hundreds of gas holders - also known as gasometers - once stood among the UK's towns and cities. William Murdoch, the inventor of gas lighting coined the term gasometer in the early 1800s.

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The disused gasometer, pictured above, was built in East Greenwich around 1887. At time of building its 225,000 cubic metre capacity made it the largest gas holder in the world

They are called gasometers because they rise to the occasion. As gas is fed in from a pipeline it pushes up storage chambers one-by-one, to accommodate the exact amount. The more gas, the bigger the holder becomes.

Gas holder - Greenwich, London

Are they still in use?

A few still are in use in the UK - apparently there's a working gas holder in the east of Oxford, yards from the Cowley plant.

But most have not been used for many years.

They became common in the last century because 'town' gas for domestic use was locally manufactured from coal - it needed to be stored.

Gasometers were made obsolete by the high pressure underground pipelines that deliver natural gas - the National Transmission System. Natural gas was discovered in the North Sea in the 1960s.

Transco plans to dismantle nearly all of its non-listed 550 gasometers by 2009.

Gasometers require expensive maintenance - and the authorities are not keen on large containers of gas in urban areas, either.

"There are, on average, three or four large gas escapes every year from gasholders, which could lead to a major incident if the gas found an ignition source." wrote Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, in November 2007.

Gas holder - Greenwich, London
Gas holder detail - Greenwich, London

What now?

Energy company E.ON UK is currently working on two major underground gas storage schemes. The Holford Gas Storage facility in Cheshire is already under construction, and the Whitehill project in East Yorkshire is currently in planning.

They're not planning on building any distinctive steel framed gasometers.

But we may not have smelt the last of 'town gas' - Great Point Energy a Boston-area startup has come up with a low-cost process for converting coal into pipeline-grade natural gas.

"We can take coal out of the ground and put it in a natural-gas pipeline for less than the cost of new natural-gas drilling and exploration activities," CEO Andrew Perlman told MIT's Technology Review.


External links

Gasometers - Wikipedia

The East Greenwich gasometer

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