World Environment Day - part 2

For the second part of our series to celebrate World Environment Day, we spoke to Tom Downes, 23, Apprentice Engineering Technician at the BIFoR-FACE facility.

Hi Tom! What do you do as an Engineering Technician Apprentice at BIFoR-FACE?

My primary role is to monitor and maintain the pressurised carbon dioxide (CO2) plant on-site. We use lots of specialised equipment and programs to transfer the CO2 into the woodland, to raise the atmospheric CO2 level in the forest to what is expected worldwide by 2050. In creating this futuristic atmosphere, we allow scientists and researchers to conduct experiments on how the ecosystem will react to this heightened CO2 level.

Why are technicians like you important?

Technicians tend to specialise in very specific roles – some are research or lab-based, some are electrical or mechanical engineers, and some are experts in IT (to name a few!). All of these experts in different fields of work come together to create a network of knowledge and professionalism, and without them all working together in their respective areas, the entire system could fall apart!

What couldn’t happen without you?

The head engineer and I are responsible for the fault-finding that takes place on-site, so if something breaks, we are usually the ones to find out why and try to resolve the situation. Pressure systems can be very dangerous, so it is very important that things are maintained in a safe way to prevent any accidents from occurring. Nobody wants liquid carbon dioxide spilling over the car park at minus 20 degrees Celsius!

What led you to choose this job role?

As somebody still at the start of my career, I decided to take on this apprenticeship as I knew I wanted to have a more hands-on role at work but was still unsure as to what exactly I wanted to do. This engineering position takes on an array of disciplines, from computer networking and instrumentation to pressure systems and data management. This means that when I finish here I will have a wide range of skills, allowing me a large scope for where I can take my career as a technician.

What’s the best bit about your job?

I’m lucky enough to work at an outdoor forest facility that is at the forefront of global climate change research. This is the only facility of its kind in the northern hemisphere and one of only two in the world, so I’ve always got interesting things to talk about when people ask me what I do. Not many people can do their weekly maintenance checks whilst also avoiding badger sets and spotting buzzards and woodpeckers!

What are the skills and attributes you need to do your job?

Outside of the engineering aspect of my job, I have to communicate with a lot of people. We are a very busy facility, with lots of researchers attending who all have different requirements and needs. Part of my job is being flexible and being able to understand their experiments so that I can help them to achieve their goals. As there are only six of us in the team that working on-site permanently, we have to cooperate well with each other and make sure that everybody knows what is going on.

What is your daily routine like?

The very first thing I do each day is to make sure that all of our CO2 systems are running and releasing the correct amount of gas into the forest, with no errors or malfunctions. Once I know this is running well, I can check other systems to make sure there are no issues. Sometimes the work that needs to be done involves climbing up a tower – we have 107 towers on-site! Once you are licensed to climb and have got used to the sensation, it really is amazing being able to work up a 40m mast on a sunny day (not so much in the wind or rain).

What would you say to someone thinking about a technical career?

I would say that becoming a technician of any kind is a great idea – there will always be a demand for the skills that you will acquire, and there is such a large array of disciplines that there will be something that suits almost anybody. In terms of engineering, it can be quite overwhelming at first, but once you have come to understand the basics it is a very steep upwards curve of knowledge. I have only been at BIFoR for a year, and I already look back and can’t believe how much I have learned.

To take a tour of the BIFoR-FACE facility, click here


To learn more about the carbon cycle, click here


To hear more about the importance of forests in the carbon cycle, listen to the podcast below: 




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