From lab to pump: how BP’s technologists created a new dirt-busting fuel

Last edited: 15 April 2016

How do BP’s technical experts go about developing new fuels for global markets? From the early days of research to the final rounds of testing, BP Magazine meets the technologists who’ve been hard at work for five years on new fuels with ACTIVE technology

It’s a familiar sequence of actions for drivers everywhere: unscrew the fuel cap, lift up the pump and insert nozzle into vehicle. Do you give a second thought to the fluid that flows out of the hose and into your fuel tank? Or what it does once it’s in your engine – apart from, ultimately, getting you to where you want to be?

There’s a team of chemists and engineers who have put five years’ worth of brainpower into developing and testing the new BP unleaded and diesel fuels with ACTIVE technology that are now launched across several continents, including Europe, North America and Australasia. 

Here, a handful of the many individuals involved explain what it takes to turn a scientific concept into reality – from a laboratory test to a fuel flowing out of the pumps at the world’s service stations.

Research: shining a spotlight on future vehicle trends…

Almost a decade ago, BP’s research team started investigating what engine technologies would be in a car park by 2016 – and, consequently, what fuel product characteristics might be required. 

Those studies involved detailed modelling work, drawing on information from government legislation, vehicle manufacturers and the automotive engineering industry.

“The skill of the research team is to take all that input, model it and project likely scenarios,” says Rebecca Yates, formulated products technology research manager. “The key trends we predicted were engine downsizing, engine boosting – or turbocharging, and the use of stop-start technology – which is now well-known.” 
In the gasoline market, the research also pointed to the emergence of direct injection engines – where injectors are now located in the harsher environment of the combustion chamber and exposed to higher pressures and temperatures. 

“When we delved into a further level of detail around the fuel injector technologies, we began to uncover insights around how this type of engine technology would bring new challenges for deposits and dirt,” she continues.

Working with experts from the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials – a partnership with top UK and US universities – the researchers took on a major piece of work to understand the formation of such engine deposits. 

“We did advanced analysis to tell us about the structure and composition of the dirt; used microscopic imaging of fuel injector sprays under engine-like conditions to pinpoint what leads to deposits forming; and looked at real-time combustion videos to establish the impact of dirt on engine performance,” adds Yates, whose team is based at BP’s Technology Centre in Pangbourne, UK.

Formulate: choosing the right ingredients to clean…

With dirt identified as a significant problem in modern engines, the team set its sights on creating a new fuel technology to tackle it. Expert technologist Robert Allan works on gasoline product development and describes the work to identify the best blend of fuel components:

“Along with colleagues in our testing centre in Bochum, Germany, we compared and contrasted different ingredients to hone in on the optimal formula for the tasks we wanted our fuels to complete. Eventually, we pinpointed a blend that can not only keep an engine clean, but can also clean up a dirty engine as well.”

So, was there a breakthrough moment in the laboratory? “More like a series of moments,” Allan says. “The strength of the new fuels with ACTIVE technology lies in the fact that they act efficiently in different engine technologies, in a range of fuels, across different geographies.
"We saw a series of very strong results which made us think ‘we’re onto something here’!”

Gasoline engines provide a particular challenge for fuel-makers in today’s market, as there are two different injection technologies: the conventional port fuel system and the newer direct injection system.

“Our fuels need to operate in both of these types of engine. To make sure that was the case, we couldn’t just rely on traditional testing methods; there are industry standard tests available for the conventional technology, but not so for the modern versions. That meant developing new testing programmes to demonstrate the fuels’ benefits.”

Test: ‘driving’ thousands of hours on the rolling roads…

Over the past five years, the team has subjected ACTIVE technology fuels to more than 50,000 hours of testing in engines and vehicles. That’s the equivalent of more than one million miles or 1.6 million kilometres. Senior fuels technologist and engineer Stephen Mayne has led the development of the new diesel product for light-duty vehicles. “If you want to demonstrate a certain performance attribute for a formulation, you need to build a robust test method for that,” he says.
“For example, we developed an engine test to demonstrate the ability of the fuels to rapidly clean up deposits – and another one to show the fuels’ performance to prevent rough running.”
It’s not only gasoline engine technology that is changing, on the diesel side, fuel injectors have also become more complex – now operating under some 3,000 bars of pressure and at speeds of up to 1,000 times faster than a blink of the eye. The holes which spray fuel into the engine are becoming smaller over time, meaning even tiny deposits can have a significant impact. BP’s latest diesel fuel with ACTIVE technology has been proven to combat these deposits – just as in gasoline engines. 

For heavy-duty vehicle diesel engines, some testing takes place in a cell, and other tests occur on chassis dynamometers (otherwise known as rolling roads), where the team can control strict parameters.

“We can drive a heavy-duty vehicle for hours and hours on a set cycle,” says Richard Jones, expert technologist in diesel product development. “We set up a range of different ‘road’ conditions from urban to motorway, with the largest engine for a 44-tonne vehicle. As well as the clean-up action, we were able to show a very considerable fuel economy benefit with the ACTIVE technology.”

Launch: pumping on a forecourt nearby now…

With massive data sets collected from BP and independent testing facilities to prove that the new fuels will remove dirt, help vehicles run more efficiently and drive more smoothly, the challenge to bring the products from laboratories in the UK and Germany to global forecourts stepped up a gear. 
Many teams across BP worked together – from technology deployment groups in individual countries to oil terminal operations, from marketing to retail teams globally.
But, what does it feel like to have helped develop the product that is now driving engines in many corners of the Earth?
“It means a lot to be able to say, ‘I played a part in that’,” says Rachel Todd, chemist and senior fuels technologist. “We’re a relatively small team and we can all individually say ‘I ran that test. I analysed that data; I made sure it is robust’. 

"Like a jigsaw puzzle, the project comes together, piece by piece, and that represents quite a journey for us all.”

How does ACTIVE technology work?

New BP fuels contain active molecules that attach themselves to the dirt they find on key engine components. Molecules also attach themselves to the metal surfaces of clean engines and create a protective layer that stops dirt from forming.

Related content