The Incredible Hull: BP celebrates 50 years of operations at UK chemicals site

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Last edited: 28 June 2017

Technological breakthroughs, giant engineering projects and a visit from the Queen are just some of the highlights from BP’s site in Hull in the UK over the past half-century. BP Magazine looks back at its history and a new business which is paving the way for the future

Hull chemicals plant sits next to a large tidal estuary, the Humber, with a view of the giant Humber Bridge in the distance. It buzzes with a stream of cyclists in boiler-suits – all moving from offices to workshops to processing plants for the next job. The skyline is dotted with jagged metal structures and gigantic cooling towers – all playing their part in producing acetic acid and acetic anhydride, key ingredients for everyday items like plastic bottles, paint and pharmaceuticals. It is not just manufacturing at Hull, the site is also home to BP’s research and technology centre for developing, testing and piloting new technologies, as well as other industrial and technology companies.
Hull’s site manager, Victor Alvarado, explains the site’s biggest accomplishments over the years: “Taking technology from the laboratory and converting it to a world-scale asset is one of the things Hull has most to be proud of. Our Cativa technology, a chemical process for producing acetic acid, is now used across the world in our chemicals sites from Asia to North America. It’s achievements like this that have kept us here for 50 years, and we’re going to be here for a long time to come.”

A timeline: five decades at Hull

1967 – BP takes over the Saltend site in Hull.
1981 – The Queen visits Hull to open a new plant, the same day she opens the Humber Bridge.
1982 – A4 acetic acid plant opened – the increase in output makes BP Hull Europe’s number one producer of acetic acid.
1989 – A5 acetic acid & acetic anhydride plant opened. It was the biggest engineering project in the UK at the time, with the exception of the Channel Tunnel.
1995 – The new ‘Cativa’ chemical process, invented in Hull, is used abroad in a chemicals plant in Texas, USA.
2013 – BP announces a new technology, SaaBre™, which produces acetic acid from synthesis gas.
2017 – BP celebrates 50 years of operations at Hull.

Half a decade on site

One man who can claim to have seen it all is Frank Cook. He started at the Saltend site in 1965 and completed almost 50 years at BP when he retired in 2016. When he began working, the control room was run manually by tweaking valves, he was paid £3.36 ($4.23) for a 40-hour working week and a German U-boat engine was coupled up to a generator to produce electricity. 

Frank was awarded a lifetime achievement award for his commitment to safety before his retirement, having learnt its importance early in his career: “In 1967, my safety glasses saved my eyes. I was walking through the workshop and a piece of metal flew off and embedded in them right over my eye. The key thing for me is that if you see something you don’t walk past it, you do something about it. It’s a family atmosphere where everybody helps each other and that extends to safety.”

Super-strength wood

Part of the Hull site’s longevity has been its ability to innovate and adapt the business. A good example is the new business BP has invested in, Tricoya Ventures UK, which will open a wood acetylation plant on the Hull site to make super-strength wood. 

The process increases the amount of 'acetyl' molecules in wood by adding acetic anhydride, thereby changing its physical properties. This process protects wood from rot by making it inedible to most micro-organisms and fungi, without making it toxic, unlike conventional treatments. 

The preservative action effectively gives cheaper, readily available softwoods the properties of more expensive hardwoods. The Tricoya wood chips produced can be used to construct everyday items like sheds, fences and outdoor furniture.

What else happened in 1967? 

  • The first North Sea gas is pumped ashore at Easington, UK – coincidentally just 20 miles from the Hull site.
  • The Beatles released their album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band’.
  • 100,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, US to protest the ongoing Vietnam War.
  • Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for refusing military service in the US army.
  • The first ATM (automated teller machine) was opened in the UK.

Looking to the future

Ross O’Brien, a graduate mechanical engineer at Hull, is excited about the future: “I got some advice from someone once – never get attached to the site you work in because your career can take you anywhere. 

"I’ve already failed on that one! The site has a really good bunch of people who feel like they’re in it together. 

“Looking ahead, I think the new wood acetylation plant is really exciting. It will take soft wood and convert it into a strong construction material. That opens the door to a whole other market and a potential boom.”

Concluding, site manager Victor Alvarado says: “We have a base of new, young graduates who are like sponges sucking up knowledge; and then we have the people with decades of experience who are passing it on. There is a lot of pride on the site; it means something to people in the community. They’re very straight talking and down to earth here in Hull. Just remember not to pronounce the H when you visit – it’s ‘Ull!”

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