In His Element: Boiler Processes Fire Up John Connor's Imagination

John Connor’s future as a chemical engineer began to take root at age 12, when he opened his first chemistry set on Christmas morning. His interest in science continued to grow.

In high school, two influential chemistry teachers convinced Connor to get serious about the subject, and the self-proclaimed pyromaniac discovered that chemistry was his passion, although his career path wasn’t clear until college. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he discovered chemical engineering, earning a bachelor’s in chemistry and later a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri-Rolla, now known as the Missouri University of Science & Technology.

A short stint at a paper company after graduation piqued his interest. “I found the pulp and paper process very interesting,” Connor says. “In particular, the recovery boilers in the powerhouse, where chemicals in the pulping liquor are recovered by combusting them in a boiler.”

Two years after graduation, Connor came to Burns & McDonnell to work with flares, incinerators and boilers as an assistant chemical engineer. It was a pyromaniac’s dream. At Burns & McDonnell, Connor was charged with finding, developing and executing projects, primarily for industrial utilities. He was introduced to the engineer-procure-construct (EPC) process, which the firm used to design and build a boiler house at a Procter & Gamble plant in Kansas City, Kan. That project included everything required to produce steam: water treatment, deaerator, boilers and more.

“The Procter & Gamble project was one of my favorites,” Connor says. “I was the lead process engineer. It was very successful, and it ushered in our era of EPC work.”

Boiler Buff

Now in his 20th year at Burns & McDonnell, Connor has built a reputation as a boiler authority.

“He’s our go-to guy for midsize industrial boilers,” says Warren Kennedy, associate vice president in the Process & Industrial Group at Burns & McDonnell.

As the resident specialist in designing custom specifications for industrial process boilers, Connor’s services are always in demand.

“John comes in early in the project and helps create good, tight specs,” Kennedy says. “He’s developed a reputation with our clients as someone in the know because of his technical proficiency on the various fuel types that process boilers use, such as biomass, natural gas and refinery fuel gas.”

Staying the Course

Although the bulk of Connor’s work occurs early in a project, he still verifies that his work meets his client’s needs throughout the project.

Terry Pritchard, process engineer at Frontier Refining, recalls working with Connor on design and construction of a 280-pound steam boiler in 2008.

“John was always available to answer questions concerning not just engineering, but also operations,” Pritchard says. “He’s a very sharp, easy-to-work-with individual who maintained awareness of the project throughout its duration.”

As lead process engineer managing several projects for Valero Energy Corp., Connor has had to keep many irons in the fire. “John has had to work on multiple projects moving at the same speed and on parallel timeframes,” says Joe Rahija, a process engineer at Valero. “He came in during phase two of a reformate splitter project and has done a great job of playing catch-up. He has a calm and laid-back demeanor, and he’s very methodical and detail-oriented, which has helped balance it all.”

Connor’s know-how is valued by the process industry. He has been instrumental in establishing industry regulations. He serves on the Single Burner Boiler Technical Committee for the National Fire Protection Association 85, Boiler and Combustion Systems Hazard Code. Through an American Petroleum Institute committee, he is helping develop Recommended Practice 538, Industrial Fired Boilers for General Refinery and Petrochemical Service.

In the past two decades, his contributions to the process industry have made a significant impact at Burns & McDonnell and in the field.

It’s all thanks to Santa.

Contact John Connor at 816-822-3288.

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