A history of Sunbury in five objects

For the past century, the teams based at BP’s site at Sunbury, in the southeast of England, have played a steadfast, integral role in the company’s progress. To mark its 100th birthday, we’ve picked out five ‘objects’ to help tell the fascinating story of the site

1. First annual report of the Research Department, circa 1918

This report is one of the earliest Sunbury-related documents in BP’s archives and outlined the work being carried out to fix problems with the viscosity of fuel oil derived from the crude oil produced at the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s (APOC) oilfields in Persia, now Iran.

APOC – later BP – acquired the Sunbury site in 1917, after laboratories at East Ham college became difficult to secure for continuous research. Sunbury’s remit was to discover new components in the crude and to turn them into new products and applications. What’s more, the British Government had invested £2 million in order to secure long-term fuel supplies for the country’s wartime navy.

The site APOC chose was, in fact, a rundown 18th century Georgian manor house called Meadhurst. It paid £950 and Dr Albert E. Dunstan, then head of chemistry at East Ham, and Dr Thole set up the research department. But it wasn’t exactly a beacon of scientific innovation. In fact, the first laboratory was housed in the cellar and early conditions were so basic that Dunstan fell ill with pneumonia. Not surprisingly, a proper laboratory, complete with workshops and other buildings, was quickly approved. The beginnings of an experimental refinery were also laid down.

In 1929, a new engine laboratory was fitted so that petroleum products could be tested under real engine conditions and, two years later, BP launched its ground-breaking BP Plus fuel. By now, 100 members of staff worked on site.

2. Map of bomb damage at Sunbury, 1944

The Second World War first arrived on Sunbury’s doorstep in October 1940 when two high explosive bombs fell, damaging water, gas and electricity services. Four years later, the site was badly damaged by 160 incendiary bombs; most buildings were hit and the physics and small-scale development laboratories were completely burned out. As well as the bombs, this map shows air raid shelters around the edge of the site, plus a much larger one in the centre – roughly where the main fountain can be found today.

Sunbury was also directly involved in the war effort, with 100 employees enlisting in its Home Guard unit. Two aero engine houses were built to test the performance of aviation fuels and BP was involved in the development of the HAIS pipeline, as part of Operation PLUTO – the initiative to create underwater oil supply lines for allied forces on D-Day. Meanwhile, two BP members of staff – A.C Hartley and Dr A.O. Rankine – were asked to advise on scientific problems and carry out experiments to support the creation of FIDO, a system for clearing thick fog at airfields.

After the war, Sunbury returned to its core role, testing new products in brand new laboratories, such as the lubricating oil engine test laboratory, opened by the Shah of Persia in 1948. In 1957, BP’s exploration and production research centre moved in and throughout the 1960s BP’s newly-formed chemicals business made great strides.  

3. Concorde, 1971 

The late 1960s and 1970s were an important time for BP, with the discovery of giant oil fields in Alaska and the North Sea. With upstream research facilities now at Sunbury, the centre played a key role in both discoveries, but it was also behind another, no less significant, breakthrough – the development of an entirely new synthetic lubricant specifically designed for supersonic flight.

Called Enerjet 523, the lubricant had been a decade in the making, with BP working alongside Concorde’s Anglo-French team. Concorde’s engines operated at such high temperatures that a synthetic option was needed. For four years before the first test flight, the lubricant was put through its paces in a static environment at Sunbury, using a converted Vulcan bomber.

On 2 March 1969, the first French-assembled prototype carried out a successful test flight, swiftly followed a month later by the first official flight. Both used Enerjet 523. A year later, BP was presented a Queen’s Award to Industry for its work and continued to serve Concorde throughout its 30-year career.

4. MacRobert Award, 1982

In 1982, the Royal Academy of Engineering awarded Sunbury’s Professor Desty (seen on the right) the prestigious MacRobert Award, alongside Dr McKenna of Kaldair Ltd. Together, they had developed the innovative Indair and Mardair flares, which brought about substantial improvements in safety and environmental pollution control when flaring gas.

This was not BP’s first or last MacRobert Award. In 1970, three BP geologists won for their development of new seismic survey techniques through Alaska’s permafrost and two Sunbury researchers won in 1992 for their work in advancing the application of hydraulic fracturing technology.

Indeed, the 1970s and 80s were a time of great innovation, with a new precious metals catalyst discovered to produce ammonia in 1978 and the start of research into the Fischer Tropsch catalyst in the 1980s. By 1985, some 1,700 people were working on 800 projects at Sunbury, prompting a major expansion.

5. Computer tomography scanner, 2012

Innovation continues to play a key role at Sunbury. This computer tomography (CT) scanner is housed in part of BP’s enhanced oil recovery (EOR) laboratory and studies drilling core samples to help the company develop new ways of pushing more oil out of reservoirs. BP is a leader in EOR and its technologies deliver more than 10% of the world’s conventional EOR production.

The research carried out at Sunbury provides the business with vital experimental evidence to support the use of existing EOR processes, as well as developing new ones, such as LoSal, which earned BP a distinguished achievement award at the Offshore Technology Conference in 2014 for its plans to integrate the technology into its brand new Clair Ridge field, west of Shetland. Typically, emerging EOR techniques are applied to older fields.

A century on, Sunbury would be unrecognisable to Drs Dunstan and Thole. The old manor house has gone, along with many of the laboratories. Today, the site is BP’s major southeast business hub – home to around 3,500 people working in more than 55 different international businesses and speaking 30 different languages. But not everything has changed: if you listen carefully that early pioneering spirit still echoes through its glassy corridors. 

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