There were crowds of people lining the roads in northeast France last week, waiting to catch a glimpse of a world champion passing by.
But rather than cheering a peloton of Tour de France racers – a favorite French pastime in early July – they have been waiting for a steel centipede that’s as long as a football field (109 meters) and weighs approximately 800 tons – almost twice the weight of a fully loaded Boeing 747. Since last Monday, it has been traveling from a GE factory in the French city of Belfort to its new home inside a power plant operated by national utility Électricité de France (EDF) in the town of Bouchain more than 330 miles away.
Roughly half of the convoy’s weight is concentrated in the centipede’s cargo: HArriet, the world’s largest and most efficient gas turbine. Officially known as the 9HA, the turbine can achieve efficiency north of 61 percent when combined with a steam turbine. Put another way, that’s like Australian rider Rohan Dennis posting the fastest time ever in the Tour’s opening time trial. The machine achieves the efficiency because it uses advanced coatings, combustors and compressor parts originally developed by GE Aviation for jet engines. (GE calls this cross-pollination of technologies between its businesses the GE store.)
“The atmosphere along the way has been a lot like the Tour, except that we rarely break 10 mph,” laughs Sebastien Patard, from GE’s fulfillment and logistics team, who is traveling with the turbine. “This is one of the largest public transports in Europe’s history and we’re surrounded by people everywhere we stop. We’re even using our Twitter account to make it easier for them to find us and let them know where we are going to be.”
The entire convoy is 109 meters long (358 feet), 6.65 meters wide (22 feet) and 5.7 meters high (19 feet). The center stretcher, which carries the 400-ton turbine, rolls on two tow platforms, each with 14 rows of triple-tire axles. Image credit: GE Power & Water
The planning involved precise studies of the turning radius available along every section of the 148-km route (92 miles) from Belfort to Strasbourg, Image credit: GE Power & Water
Before Patard set off for the journey, his team, led by GE’s transportation gurus Hervé Malaval, an expert in heavy lift, and Thierry Dantec, the company’s European logistics leader, had spent three years preparing for it.
A big job requires big tools. Workers used these wrenches to remove road signs and reinstall them after the convoy passed. Image credit: GE Power & Water
The team checked every curve in the road and built digital models of bridges and bypasses to make sure the convoy could ride over them. GE and local communities across northern France have also invested in road improvements to prepare for the transports, and the company commissioned a special rig to move the turbine. “Normally you would have a trailer with 20 lines of wheels to move something this heavy, but then we would be too long to make the required turns,” Patard says.
Instead, the team is using a trailer that has three parts. Each part can turn up to a point where it is at a right angle to the next piece. The first and last segments have 14 lines of wheels each and support the middle section, which carries the turbine. The whole rig is being pulled and pushed from behind by four trucks. “Their positions keep changing,” Patard says. “Sometimes we have three trucks pulling and one pushing when we go up a steeper slope.”
Still, the convoy is so heavy that the team had to order extra trucks loaded with ballast to cross a bridge near Colmar (incidentally the birthplace of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the designer of New York’s Statue of Liberty). “The bridge has specific architecture that required us to pull the trucks alongside the convoy and provide counterbalance and prevent damage from twisting the supporting structure,” Patard says.
YouTube member ttxdudu90 watched the convoy leave Belfort on Monday.
This is the second HArriet to leave Belfort in a year – the first one was a prototype GE is now testing in the U.S. – but the convoys will soon become a more common sight. GE has a backlog of 16 units and the company said it has been “technically selected” for 53 more.
The design of the rig was influenced by the acceptable load on the roads and allowed GE to distribute the turbine’s weight. Image credit: GE Power & Water
The convoy travels with police escorts (4 people on motorcycles), private escorts (2 motorcyclists, one car in front, one car at the end) and local escorts, in addition to members of GE’s logistics team. Image credit: GE Power & Water
Like the Tour de France, the transport will have numerous stages that will last through the first half of July. But only the first nine days will be on land. On Tuesday, July 7, workers in the port of Strasbourg will move the turbine on a barge and send it down the Rhine River to Germany, the Netherlands and then back south through Belgium to France along the River Escaut (see map below). “The EDF power plant in Bouchain is right next to the [river], so the last leg over land will be just half a mile,” Patard says.
Once in operation, the turbine will be able to generate up to 600 megawatts in combined cycle, enough to power the equivalent of approximately 700,000 French homes. Take a look at our photo essay from HArriet’s journey to Strasbourg.
Sometimes the team had to remove medians and road signs for the convoy to pass. Image credit: GE Power & Water
The two trucks filled with ballast pull up next to HArriet on the bridge in Colmar. Image credit: GE Power & Water
The 9HA turbine, aka HArriet, is the world’s largest and most powerful gas turbine. Harriet can reach a combined cycle efficiency that exceeds 61 percent, a number that has been called the Holy Grail in the power generation business.GIF and image credits: GE Power & Water