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The curious chemist

Meet Glenn Sunley, advisor in chemistry for BP Group Research, and winner of the 2017 Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Creativity in Industry Prize

As a chemist in BP since 1991, Sunley has made or contributed to a whole raft of important discoveries that have had huge impacts on the efficiency, reliability and cost of some of BP’s most important chemical processes. Constantly curious, a vital trait for a successful chemist, he was encouraged and inspired by enthusiastic and supportive chemistry teachers, from his school to his PhD supervisor, to seek a career in the field.


Chemistry can sometimes seem ‘dry’ to outsiders, but Sunley speaks frequently of the ‘elegance’ within it. Studying chemistry with industrial economics and technology at the University of York, Sunley was fascinated by the “legendary and very elegant Monsanto acetic acid process”, at that time, licensed to BP. He sought a career with BP and became a key member of the team that went on to discover and develop Cativa® technology, BP’s proprietary successor to the Monsanto acetic acid process. Cativa was first commercialized in 1995 and the chemistry published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


Sunley’s contributions included the discovery of promoters, co-promoters and stabilizers, process optimization and the Cativa secondary reactor for improved chemical yield from carbon monoxide. Cativa has been implemented at eight plants worldwide and has produced more than 40 million tonnes of product.


"The chance to improve on Monsanto; what an honour,” he says. “I’d say it is now text book stuff on how to unravel the complexities of a catalytic process, so we’ve written a bit of our own history in a way."


Among BP’s scientists, Sunley’s name is one of the most frequent to appear on published academic papers, but, he points out, he is only one of 17 authors of the most detailed Cativa paper, demonstrating the importance of diversity, teamwork and collaboration in modern chemistry.


Nobody has all the answers in today’s complex world,” he says. “Being successful involves working closely with your expert colleagues in BP across a wide range of disciplines, but also with other companies and academic groups.


As part of BP Group Research – the organization’s centrally-funded focus of key capability in chemistry, chemical engineering and biosciences – Sunley’s work assists BP’s businesses with immediate production issues and more fundamental scientific work aimed at business renewal, often in collaboration with BP’s key university partners.


“I think it’s a great construct for the modernization of BP,” Sunley says. “There is plenty of variety to what we do, which makes it interesting every day I come to work.” 


Even after years of inventions and discoveries, certain questions continue to fascinate and frustrate in equal measure. What keeps Sunley awake at night?


“The big one,” he says. “Are we truly alone in the universe, or not? Of course, we may never know the answer to that in our lifetimes. More relevant to BP, it’s how we will be generating our energy in 1,000 years. I recently saw an interesting documentary on periodic signals from space, suggesting a distant civilization might be using solar panels orbiting a sun to capture energy on a massive scale. A fascinating idea.”


Sunley says the RSC’s recognition of his own contributions to the chemistry world is welcomed and ‘a great honour’, but the external recognition for BP is also equally important. 


“There is often a perception that all the great scientists and technologists are in universities, and that’s not true. Part of this award is showing the outside world that we do really cool stuff in BP and we want people to come and work here. It’s a strong business driver for us that people outside know how good BP technologists are.”


Commenting on Sunley’s award, Angelo Amorelli, vice president of Group Research, echoes this.


“This award is external recognition, not only of Glenn’s remarkable capabilities, but also of the quality of BP’s research,” says Amorelli. “Science is a competitive business and BP must not forget what underpins our continuing success. We continue to need innovators and experienced advisors like Glenn."