Chips Off the Old Block: Where Michelangelo Once Chiseled, GE Workers Build Engineering Marvels

October 23, 2012

For millennia artisans and craftsmen flocked to the coastal Tuscan town Carrara and scouted its famous marble quarries for the perfect stone. “Oh cursed a thousand times are the day and the hour when I left Carrara,” Michelangelo Buonarroti wrote to his brother 500 years ago. He made his David from Carrara marble, and died chiseling at a block of the same provenance. The marble is still there and so are the craftsmen. Many, however, don’t chisel stone, but weld steel. They are building some of the world’s largest and most complex engineering marvels: mobile power plants called power “modules.”

The massive steel structure contains a mobile power plant and weighs as much as four A380 double-decker jumbo jets. Some 3,700 people came to see the first power module in the Marina di Carrara port before it pushed off for Australia.

Carrara and the adjacent towns of Avenza and Massa are home to a pair of huge plants and testing fields for GE Oil & Gas. At Avenza, GE workers and engineers are working on five gigantic power modules for the Chevron-operated Gorgon Project, one of the world’s largest natural gas developments that is under construction off the northwest coast of Australia. The Greater Gorgon Area gas field holds an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The power modules, each fitted out with a GE Frame 9 gas turbine, will supply the project with 650 megawatts of electricity used for compressing and cooling natural gas into liquid that can be shipped in supertankers to customers around the world. Chevron has ordered $1.8 billion from GE in machinery and services, including the Avenza power generators. Gorgon is an example of the “tremendous opportunities to grow” for GE’s Oil & Gas business. “We’ve got the right stuff in the right places,” Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO told analysts in September. He expects the business to grow“double digits this year and next.”

The first of the 90-foot modules, each big enough to cover half of a football field and weighing 2,300 tons, shipped for Australia aboard of a customized Japanese freighter Yamato last Friday. It took the module 4.5 hours to cover the 500-yard distance between the GE plant and the Marina di Carrara port. The behemoth rolled, centipede like, on 578 computerized wheels attached to four orange self-propelled transporters. At one point the module hugged a residential complex so close that a quarter would be too fat to pass between them.

The tight turn was just one of many unique obstacles facing the engineers. GE nearly tripled the size of the Avenza plant to build the modules. The company also quarantined the construction area. The Gorgon modules will generate power on Barrow Island, a pristine nature preserve, where Australian authorities imposed strict environmental regulations to prevent soil and wildlife contamination. As a result, GE workers and welders at the Avenza plant must walk through pressurized air cabins to clean their clothes every time they enter the building lot. An automatic system washes the soles of their shoes. No food or drink with the exception of bottled water is allowed in either.

Each module takes more than a year to complete. Workers must apply six miles of structural welding to assemble the steel trusses that support each structure, and attach 12 miles of electric cable.

Some 3,700 people came to the port to see the module on its 12,400-mile journey. If the seas stay fair, the first module will disembark in Australia in 40 days. Its four brethren should ship out by the end of the third quarter next year.