Marnie Surfaceblow: Bitter Rivalry Ends in Collaboration

Long-time POWER readers may remember Marmaduke Surfaceblow, a fictional character whose engineering escapades were brilliantly portrayed in hundreds of stories published within POWER magazine’s pages over more than 30 years beginning in 1948. Today, the fictional series continues through Marmy’s granddaughter, Marnie, who is an engineering wiz in her own right.


Never forget the human factors that can impact safety and success at every level of a project.

Marnie Surfaceblow, vice president of Surfaceblow & Associates International, watched the Maharashtra landscape scroll past the car window. Turning to her driver, Lead Field Engineer Maya Sharma, she asked, “Your thoughts?”

Keeping her eyes on the road, Maya thought, then responded: “Investigating this accident for Hekmatyar Holdings at their rare earth elements and critical minerals [REE/CM] facility normally is something you would approach with enthusiasm. The German firm Technische Exzellenz AG operates the facility, and their chief technology officer, Dr. Steffi Gauss, will meet us on-site to be interviewed and to facilitate a re-enactment of operations prior to the acid tank explosion, sending five workers to hospital.”

Pausing briefly, Maya continued: “Previously you spoke disparagingly of a ‘Steffi’ from your past. Ma’am, is this that same person and do you have a potential personal conflict?”

“Yes … and yes. Well done,” Marnie replied. Steeling herself with a deep drink of coffee from her thermos, she added, “It’s painful history, so I’ll stick to the high points.”

A Touchy History

Marnie began, “We were the only two graduate students in our university’s Power Engineering program. We studied together every day, helped each other with our research projects, and quickly became best friends. No, more like sisters really.

“In our thesis year the university cut research funding, and every graduate student had to compete for project funds. Steffi and I swore we’d work together to fund both our projects. As our chances started to look grim, we butted heads over how to proceed. Then, I discovered she had family connections trying to sway the Dean. I felt betrayed and confronted her. She claimed she had some master plan to fund both projects, but it seemed like a lame excuse. We fought, ending our friendship. A week later, she began her newly funded research, and I began my third-shift waitressing job at a truck plaza, self-funding my research,” Marnie explained.

Struggling for words, Maya finally said, “You worked to fund your own graduate project? Amazing, ma’am!”

“Our personal conflict peaked during Steffi’s thesis defense,” Marnie continued. “I mean, all I did was note her lignite gasification project was a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. The room was in an uproar until I showed them on a whiteboard the mistake she’d made. There was total silence, broken by Steffi calling me the b-word. After that … well, I twisted the knife and called her a Westphalian Witch, because only magic could make her project work. I received a cup of coffee in my face, and she received a one-semester suspension.”

“I … see,” Maya grimly commented, presaging a battle yet to come.

Hard Feelings Persist

The site was modern and clean, and the staff highly trained and professional. A site safety video revealed some dangerous chemicals were present, along with moving equipment bringing coal mining waste to the site, but most equipment was well-isolated from direct contact with the workers. Neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium were the primary REE/CM produced, highly valuable for making high-strength generator magnets and motors. Gallium and germanium, vital for electrical circuits, was produced in larger amounts. Some thorium was produced as well, although it was safely concentrated off-site.

1. Steffi’s office included an impressive library and many rare-earth samples. Source: POWER

A site concierge escorted them to the director’s office, which resembled a small Victorian library. Wooden bookshelves lined every wall, and curio cabinets and display tables held mineral samples and science instruments from the turn of the last century (Figure 1). “Hmm. It’s rather cozy,” commented Marnie.

A contralto German-accented voice from behind them interjected, “Really? Since you think I am a witch, you expected a boiling cauldron and cobwebs?”

Dr. Steffi Gauss bustled into the room, gestured at the guest chairs, and dropped into her chair. Of German-Brazilian heritage, she was surprisingly petite, with jet black hair tied in a severe bun. Wire-spectacles framed dark, serious eyes—yet her face carried smile lines with pride. Such was absent, however, as she glared toward Marnie. Upon sizing her up, Maya was reminded of the prose: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Maya deferentially presented her business card. “Ma’am, I am honored to meet you. I was impressed greatly by your recent paper regarding beryllium to track bearing loss, and the use of ultraviolet light to assist.”

“Indeed? That is most kind of you to say.” Steffi paused, then said, “Would you be surprised to know I have followed your career, Ms. Sharma? Using the behavior of crows to prevent a deadly ammonia leak … most impressive.”

Stunned, Maya replied, “But, ma’am, I was working for the power station then, and those details were never made public. How …”

Smiling confidently, Steffi waved a hand toward Marnie. “Like her, I have my networks, sources, informants, yes? Perhaps being a ‘witch,’ the crows told me!” she added with a laugh.

Refreshments were summoned by Steffi, and after partaking of them and some small talk, she folded her hands, sighed, and addressed Marnie. “I did not wish to meet you. I told corporate to ask for anyone except you, but the Hekmatyar family insisted. Curious.”

Marnie sipped her coffee, sending Steffi her characteristic sharp stare with a slight smile. “Perhaps they knew only I could discover your mistakes—like I did with your Master’s project.”

Steffi leapt to her feet ready for battle, with Marnie a second behind. The first round of verbal pummeling lasted three seconds, as Maya swiftly intervened. “LADIES! Five employees are hospitalized. They could have died. You are brilliant engineers beyond comparison—BE ENGINEERS, NOT SQUABBLING AUNTIES!”

Preternatural silence reigned, then Marnie broke the ice, “I apologize unreservedly, Steffi. My sniping about the old days was unprofessional. Let’s get to the bottom of what happened here, and how we keep it from ever happening again.”

Steffi relaxed. “Thank you. I pledge my ultimate cooperation to assist you. And, thank you, Ms. Sharma. You impress me yet further,” she said. Marnie gave Maya a glance that Maya knew said the same.

A Modified Process

“Half a billion tonnes of coal mining waste lays within 100 kilometers of this facility, relatively rich in REE/CM. We use a modular batch process with 12 identical equipment lines, each capable of independent operation.” As she spoke, Steffi marked equipment locations on a site plan. “Ten lines operate in synchrony, and two are spares. Ball tube pulverizers start at 03:00 and operate until 07:00, reducing the daily batch of waste until 100% passes a 0.3 millimeter screen. At 07:00 the crushed product is dumped into a tank, then soaks four hours in sulfuric acid to dissolve some of the REE/CM. At 11:00 the mixture is sluiced to liquid-solid separators, and the tanks cleaned until the next day.”

“Hmm. Normally the soaking takes days, not hours. What makes your process so fast?” asked Marnie.

Steffi smiled. “Really, I am shocked the Great Marnie did not guess already.” Interrupted by Maya deliberately clearing her throat, Steffi continued. “Three improvements were made: the fine mine waste pulverization, using stronger sulfuric acid, and heating the tank while soaking.”

“How strong is the sulfuric acid?” asked Maya.

“From 6 to 7 molarity, depending on REE/CM content.” Steffi paused, smiling again. “I eliminated acid storage risk by inventing a device to make sulfuric acid on-demand by a modified wet contact method.”

“Really? Most people don’t do that anymore because the reaction heat can be dangerous,” Marnie commented with a frown.

“I said modified wet contact method,” replied Steffi. “We burn sulfur, catalyze the sulfur dioxide to sulfur trioxide, then bubble that with hundreds of ultra-fine nozzles into a labyrinthine water chamber. Each labyrinth surface is a high-contact heat exchanger, with heat recovered for use on-site. After formation of gaseous sulfuric acid, we condense it to liquid, removing additional heat, then mix precisely with water. The system automatically sets all flowrates, but operators can over-ride this if needed.”

Marnie nodded understanding. “And you use the waste heat from this to heat the soak tank. Is that true?” she asked.

“Precisely!” Steffi replied. “All possible energy is saved.”

“Ma’am, this process can release sulfur compounds and hydrogen, the latter perhaps being the cause of the explosion, yes?” Maya asked.

“The tanks have hoods and scrubbers, collecting and neutralizing dangerous gases. Sulfur and hydrogen detectors are at every connection. I have worked diligently to make each segment of the process safe, reliable, and efficient.” Steffi paused, then appeared visibly drained. “I have great shame five workers were injured. I am sick at heart since the accident. If I have been the cause, I will face consequences without evasion.”

Friction in the Workforce

After an uncomfortable silence, Maya spoke up. “Ma’am, I am tasked with leading the accident re-enactment. To prepare, I conducted remote anonymous interviews with the workers in that process area and have questions. First, the workers say on the day of the accident the sulfur soaking started at 06:10, after a lengthy argument with the supervisor, when normal operation begins at 07:00. Why?”

“I must provide some background,” Steffi replied, looking somewhat downcast. “There are ongoing personnel problems here. All supervisors are European, and all workers are Indian. Many workers are smart, motivated, responsible, and would be exceptional supervisors. It is the home office that does not allow it, saying they must have a bachelor’s degree. Imbeciles! I believe they simply feel patronizing toward the workers. Ironically, almost none of the European supervisors wishes to be here. They live in an ex-patriot enclave and refuse to learn even basic Hindi or Marathi, except for ‘namaste.’ There is endemic lack of empathy for the workers, and I have terminated several supervisors for disrespectful attitudes.”

While Maya and Marnie sat stunned at Steffi’s no-nonsense criticism of her own company. She continued: “To ensure worker safety, I worked on the facility lines for a month myself in various roles. At each station I witnessed safety concerns, process inefficiencies, and working conditions. I was even burned by a hot pipe that was not shielded.” Steffi held up her forearm, displaying a small scar as if it was a badge of honor.

“The coal waste grinding and sulfur soaking processes are outside the main building, due to potential liquid or vapor leaks. Thus, working there exposes one to the elements. The morning heat can be terrible, so I said if the forecasted heat was excessive, we allow advancing startup by up to three hours, which allows all workers inside by 09:00,” explained Steffi.

“Very admirable,” Marnie added with genuine feeling. “From Maya’s interviews, I understand the morning of the accident, workers were concerned about the forecasted heat and asked the supervisor to start sulfur soaking at 05:00 instead of 07:00. The supervisor refused, since no one planned by starting the grinders two hours earlier. Then, the supervisor agreed to start sulfur soaking at 06:00, but the actual start was at 06:10. Two questions: wouldn’t that mean the pulverized waste would not have enough time to dissolve, and why start at 06:10 if the supervisor agreed to 06:00?”

Steffi thought, frowning deeply. “There are alternate procedures for soaking after three hours of grinding, but those require advance notice. We increase acid molarity to 8 and apply greater tank heating. Again, that requires advance notice and approval from management. As to the additional 10 minutes, I do not know,” Steffi acknowledged.

Marnie stood up and said, “I think it’s time to conduct the re-enactment. There’s more here than meets the eye, and I confess I’m honestly not sure what went wrong.”

Reconstructing Events

It was late afternoon as the sulfur soak supervisor and the seven-member work crew not in the hospital gathered in the shade of the process control building. Marnie and Maya had inspected the sulfur soaking tanks, both noting significant passive barriers in place that shielded most of the equipment from the workers. “That must be why the five were injured, and not worse,” commented Maya.

They joined Steffi and the work crew, and Steffi introduced each worker by name. She then announced, “First, a prayer for our injured colleagues,” and recited a Hindu prayer in Marathi.

“Ma’am!” Maya said with surprise. “Did you memorize that or do you speak our state language?”

Steffi responded in perfect Marathi, “How could I be a good project director if I cannot communicate with the workers?”

Marnie, meanwhile, started by grilling Gerhard, the supervisor. “I understand you advanced the sulfur soak by an hour, even though procedures state you have to ask permission if you increase the acid strength. Why was that?” she asked.

Gerhard, a beefy German engineer of middle age, drew himself up with indignation. “These people forced my hand. Always they complain, the heat, the dust, the smell. That morning they demanded two hours advance to the startup. I was generous by giving one. Just as I was generous turning the tank heaters on early. First, they are cold. Then, they are hot. They were born here, yes?”

“Wait,” Marnie interrupted. “How could you turn the tank heaters on before starting the sulfuric acid machine?” she asked.

“Electric heaters. After maintenance, the tank must be dried so no corrosion. You understand, yes? The workers, they complain about morning cold, so I allow the electric heaters, and they lean against the tank. We turn off before acid is added. It is all to make the workers happy,” Gerhard said with mild contempt in his voice.

A commotion drew Marnie to glance over at Maya, who was interviewing the workers. Clearly, they were conveying something with emotion, but Maya was calmly noting everything down. Marnie turned back to Gerhard. “That morning, you decided to increase the acid strength, but you didn’t ask permission first?” she queried.

“Ask of who?” Gerhard snorted. “That time of morning, all managers are asleep. If I wait until they answer, it would be too late. You should praise my action.”

Steffi, who had been standing to the side, but listening to every word, turned and fixed her eyes on Gerhard. “Praise blatant violation of my safety procedures?” she barked with a mirthless laugh. “Oh, Gerhard, I did not recall your prior employment as a comedian.”

Gerhard blanched. Marnie pressed him further, “You told the acid production operator to increase the strength, and then what happened?”

Gerhard grunted, “He refused, repeating like a prayer that it was not procedure, whining ‘We need permission from above.’ I say to him, ‘I am supervisor. I was trained in Germany and am the expert. Do what I say.’ He refused. Then, the others gathered and rambled in their incomprehensible language. This went on too long, so I took control and started the acid production.”

Worker Concerns Ignored

Maya approached the group, leading one of the workers. “Excuse me, this is Sanjay, the acid production operator, and he has two facts I think are critical,” she interposed.

Bowing to Steffi and Marnie, Sanjay wrung his hands and tried to speak. Steffi took his hands, saying in a calm voice, “It’s OK. Just tell the truth, and all will be as it must be.”

2. Sanjay, the acid production operator, was traumatized by the incident and reliving the sequence of events was difficult for him. Source: POWER

With shaking voice, Sanjay began (Figure 2), “Ma’am, I tried to stop him from making stronger acid. I say to him, ‘The tank heaters are still on. This will overheat the system.’ He did not listen.”

Gerhard shocked the group by yelling, “He said no such thing! The lying …”

Marnie turned to face Gerhard, and in a chilling voice while sending an even colder stare, said, “Silence!” Gerhard took a step back, soundlessly sulking.

Upon prompting, Sanjay continued, “He did not ask permission. He took over the controls. He looked in the manual for settings for water flow for the mix and set them wrong. I tried to stop him but he pushed me away. We ran to the shelter, but the explosion …”The young man broke down.

Steffi’s face was grim, as she motioned to the sulking supervisor. “Gerhard, please sit at the controls. Kindly show me the settings to produce 8 molarity acid. As this is non-standard, you may employ the manual,” she directed.

Gerhard cautiously sat at the controls and reached for the operations manual, thumbed to the appendix titled “Non-Standard Operation,” and then started setting several controls, one by one. It took only half a minute, then he said, “There. All is correct, as per the manual.” He turned his chair to face the three horrified looks of Steffi, Marnie, and Maya.

“Gerhard!” Steffi commanded, “Tell me the acid and water flow settings you used!”

“It is 1,000,000 water to 10,000 acid, as … specified … in …” Gerhard’s voice trailed off, as he noticed the acid setting was “10,000” but the water setting was “1,00,000.”

“I do not understand. Why is the comma in that place? I am losing my mind?” Gerhard’s voice quavered.

“No,” Steffi replied, “but you are losing your position. That is the Indian numbering system, used since we are IN INDIA! With the tank heaters on and supplying only a tenth of the dilution water …”

Marnie shook her head and said, “The heat production must have been incredible, making fuming sulfuric acid. Hydrogen was liberated in your system beyond anything it could handle, and something, goodness knows what, ignited the hydrogen.”

Fortunate Ending

Two hours later, Steffi met Marnie and Maya back in her office. “I just called the hospital. All five workers are continuing to recover. So, at least some good news,” she reported. Steffi slumped in her chair, looked toward Marnie, and asked, “What shall your report to Hekmatyar Holdings say?”

“My preliminary report: hard limits must be set within your acid control system, and the rest of the systems checked to ensure similar limits are in place. Upgrades to your instrumentation are needed to make displays absolutely unambiguous. Those two mistakes are yours to own,” Marnie replied. After pausing, she added, “The project director fosters a culture of safety and respect, and must be allowed to hire supervisors from the workers without unneeded restrictions. And despite the accident severity, the passive safety measures worked such that fortunately five employees were only injured and not killed.”

Steffi nodded soberly. “Fair criticisms. If I am allowed to continue in my position, I shall make this facility a zero-incident site until it closes!” she declared.

“Oh, I don’t know, perhaps you could have some minor incident, like an overflowing sink or something, so I could come back and visit sometime,” said Marnie, smiling. The smile was returned by Steffi.

Una Nowling, PE is an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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