The 1960s were an exciting time to be in BP – the hunt was on for oil in both Alaska and the North Sea, innovative synthetic lubricants were being developed for use in supersonic flight and a brand new chemicals division was created, as the company found ever more uses for it oil. As part of this expansion, BP took over a chemicals factory in Hull that – at its peak – would turn it into the second largest British chemicals company after ICI
Fifty years on, BP Hull is still going strong, manufacturing acetic acid and anhydride acid – the raw materials that are used in a range of everyday items, such as plastic bottles, paint and pharmaceuticals. And it is home to one of BP’s main global research and technology centres, hosting some of the organization’s most innovative operations and developing cutting-edge technology that has transformed the industry.
The early days were a little different from the technologically-advanced site that exists today, though – most notably electricity was produced from a German U-boat engine linked to a generator. Nevertheless, over the next five years BP commissioned three distillation and fermentation (DF) plants and innovation soon became the bedrock of the site’s success. The technologically advanced A5 plant, opened in 1985 to produce acetic acid and acetic anhydride from the same reaction train remains the only plant of its type in the world.
Hull is also renowned in the petrochemicals world for developing technologies such as Cativa and SaaBre. Invented in the 1990s, Cativa is still one of the most cost effective ways to produce acetic acid, while SaaBre converts synthesis gas into acetic acid. “I would say taking technology from the laboratory and converting it into a world-scale asset is one of the things that Hull has most to be proud of,” Victor Alvarado, Hull’s site manager.
And as well as developing new technologies to make its products, Hull is leading the way in finding new uses for them, thanks to BP’s £25 million investment in a new business that will see Hull’s acetic anhydride used to make super-strength wood. The process works by adding the chemical to wood chips to fundamentally change the wood’s chemical structure. This protects the chips from rot and essentially gives cheaper, readily available softwoods the properties of more expensive hardwoods.
Hull is also something of a pioneer in training. As far back as 1977, the site was investing in simulators to give plant operators realistic training, although that first simulator was a little different to the ones we’d recognize today. “It was programmed with punch tape – much like early knitting machines that had punch cards,” explains Frank Todd, a former BP employee and training coach “It took longer to set up than the actual time training.”
It wasn’t until the late 1980s and the growth in personal computing power that the technology really came into its own. Hull was building its A5 plant and for the first time ever the plant used computer terminals to operate and control activity. “It was very advanced and included touch screen functionality,” says Todd.
The simulator would prove invaluable again in the early 2000s when the entire site moved into one central control room. “Over a two-year period we trained more than 250 operators and introduced an assessment of competence,” says Phil Jones, simulation coach. “That was so successful that we now reassess our team every two years.”
Hull’s innovation continues to this day, with the successful pilot of a brand new Igloo simulator for training field technicians. “Until now our options for field technicians were either around a table discussing how someone might react, or physically out in the field, which isn’t always safe or commercially viable,” explains Tony Atkinson, operations coach.
As the name suggests, this new simulator is shaped like an igloo and projects a photorealistic 3D model of the site onto the structure. “It’s like the Star Trek holodeck,” says Jones. “We can add noise, make it daytime, night-time, we can create steam leaks, anything that a technician might find in a live environment.”
Igloo’s pilot began with a model of just one of the five floors inside the A5, created using using a process called photogrammetry, which stitches together thousands of images. That pilot was so successful that the team won funding to expand and has almost finished modelling the entire structure using more accurate LIDAR – light detection and ranging remote sensing – technology.
Igloo also offers another exciting prospect – the potential to train control room operators and field technicians at the same time, thanks to a partnership between the site, Igloo Vision (the company that makes the simulator), BP’s Digital Innovation Organization and Loughborough University, which has created a software ‘bridge’ that allows the two simulators to ‘talk’ to each other.
The potential is huge, says Atkinson: “At the moment, if a control room operator makes a mistake they can just restart the simulator model, but in real life that can create a couple of hours of work for a field technician. This will allow us to study communications skills as well as actions.”
Culture and community
During its 50 years on site, BP Hull has always taken pride in its links back to the local community, including partnerships with Humberside police, Humber Business Week and Hull Pride.
It was also the Hull team that created BP’s first education programme, back in 1968, to inspire school children to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). That first initiative involved six schools and proved so successful that BP turned it into a nationwide programme that has reached approximately 2.8 million UK students in the past five years.
As well as the plant’s 50th anniversary, 2017 is a significant year for the city of Hull itself, having been selected as the UK City of Culture 2017. BP was the first major corporate sponsor and one of the original private businesses whose support helped the city to win its bid. BP has a track record of supporting the arts and, as part of its 2017 Hull programme, it created a bespoke set of events, including live outdoor screenings from London’s Royal Opera House and the monthly BP Cultural Visions lecture series, featuring talks from a range of notable names, including playwright and local boy Richard Bean.