Ellesmere Port Octel works; a brief history
The history of Octel as a company is routed in the production of high octane aviation fuel for use in the Second World War. The company’s contribution was in the production of anti knock compound (AKC) which was blended into petrol to obtain the high octane rating required for efficient aero engines.
To ensure that sufficient material was available for the war effort a joint Ethyl Export/ ICI company was set up to produce Tetra Ethyl lead (TEL) and Tetra methyl lead (TML) at Northwich and Dibromoethane (DBE) at Hayle. Both of these components needed to be blended together to produce AKC. The sites were selected so as to be inconspicuous and well hidden from German bombers.
After the war the requirement for AKC increased as the material began to be used in car engines as well as aviation engines. In 1948 the ownership of the company changed and the Associated Ethyl Company was born. This company started to look for a location to expand its production.
One location investigated for the main TEL/TML production plant was next to the Manchester Ship Canal at Ellesmere Port Cheshire. During the 1st World war part of the site had been used as a munition factory. In the interwar years the area had been the location of a substantial cement production industry. However because of financial difficulties the production of Cement at Ellesmere Port had stopped by 1932 with over 400 people being made redundant.
The land adjacent to the Manchester Ship Canal had also started to be developed as a location for the oil storage industry. Bulk imports of oil into Ellesmere Port port had begun in 1922 and by 1934 the storage capacity had increased to 90 million gallons. The industry had also started to develop from simple storage and distribution into basic oil refining and blending. An oil company called Lobitos oilfields had built a refinery with a capacity of 100,000 tons of oil per year. This industry continued to develop with Shell purchasing a large portion of land. By the outbreak of the 2nd World War a range of refined oil products were being produced in the area of land next to the ship canal.
The land next to the Shell refinery had been left derelict since the closure of the cement factory in the inter war years. The location, close to the oil refinery, with good road and rail links and close to the salt fields of Cheshire was considered ideal as the location of a works for the production of AKC.
Almost 60 acres of the site were purchased from the Manchester Ship Canal in 1951. A new wharf was constructed on the Manchester Ship Canal followed by drainage work on the main site. A contract for the construction of the plant was let to George Wimpey and Co with the plant design by Associated Ethyl. The site required 3½ miles of rail track. The Chlorination and Sodium buildings were the first to be constructed followed by the TEL building. The shortage of steel meant that concrete was used as the main construction material. This required the transport of 8000 tonnes of precast concrete cladding from Trafford Park and one million concrete bricks from Caernarfon in 1952.
The production of TEL was a multistage process with each stage from basic raw material to intermediate to final products being made at different plants within the works. Each of these plants had to be built and commissioned in turn to allow the first charge of TEL to be produced on 16th January 1954.
The R&D department was established under Dr Gibson who had joined the company at Northwich from ICI. In 1957 the apprentice school was opened on the EP site. The chlorine works was commissioned on 27th February 1958 which meant that the company was now self-sufficient in Chlorine manufacture and was able to start to supply chlorine to Amlwch works in rail tankers on 18th March.
On 1st July 1961 the company changed its name from associated ethyl to associated octel. By the following year 50% of the company’s products were going by sea in drums or 10 ton containers. It was decided that the company needed to invest in ocean going bulk tankers and a 7 year charter of the 17,000 ton Essi Flora was arranged. This also meant that bulk storage facilities for TEL had to be built at Ellesmere Port and also in the Caribbean. The Essi Flora first docked at EP on 20/5/1964 and after loading set sail for Trinidad.
In 1964 the first TML autoclaves where commissioned. Environmental concerns meant that total containment vessels were built at EP and Northwich in 1970. While project 34 changed the face at EP, including a 300 foot exhaust gas chimney. New EC and Chlorine works and increased TEL & TML capacity occurred in 1971.
While demand for our product was outstripping our capacity to supply, the campaign against leaded petrol was also being established and in 1972 new restrictions on the maximum amount of lead allowed in petrol were announced. A DHSS working party was set up in 1978 to consider all aspects of environmental exposure to lead in the general population. When the report was published in 1980 food and water and not air borne lead where deemed to be the greatest risk. However despite this the government decided to reduce the maximum lead in petrol to 0.15 grams / litre from 1st Jan 1986. Octel’s executive committee starred to look at the effect of reduced compound requirements would have on the company and also on the possibility of business diversification.
In 1981 the government reduced the maximum lead in petrol to 0.15 grams / litre from 1st Jan 1986. While at the same time the company won the queens award for export. The Campaign for lead free air (CLEAR) burst upon the scene in 1982 and just before the 1983 general election the Tory government decided to try to seek EEC agreement for the introduction of unleaded petrol. Octel’s response was to set up an information office in Brussels.
At Ellesmere Port a 4 year expansion plan was completed in 1983 with 10 new sodium cells coming on line. This gave Octel the opportunity to use sodium as one of the building blocks on it’s new business strategy.
In September 1986 all of Octel’s site together with most of the rest of the UK chemical industry held “open days”, welcoming ordinary people onto the site to understand what it was we did as chemical manufactures. However on 5th November that year a fire in the main site stack resulted in a serious loss of production.
The following year business development started began to bear fruits as the Octel bought Palmer Research Laboratories in Holywell which was a small scale specialised chemical manufacturer. Octel also started to diversify into other areas of fuel additives.
In 1989 BP, Texaco and Mobil sold their interest in Octel to Great Lakes (Europe) who then held a 51% share of Octel. In 1998 the anti-knock facilities and business were “spun off” from Associated Octel and become Octel Corporation registered in Delaware USA and quoted on the New York Stock exchange. The bromine and general chemical business was retained by Great Lakes (Europe).
In 2006 Octel Corporation changed it’s name to Innospec and became a bulk commodity chemical business as the anti knock business declined due to legislation.