Oil Research at Bracknell



A Day at the Castrol Laboratories

Oil is oil no matter from whose hole in the ground it gushes —at least, so think the majority of people whose closest connection with the lubrication world has merely been the simple task of taking off a filler cap and popping a pint inside. But is this impression the right one ? Is oil from, say, the Persian Gulf better than that currently being hunted in the North Sea ? Is one refining process better than another, or are they all alike ? These are questions which come to all of us at some time or another, and yet the task of taking steps to find the answers always seems to be far too tedious to be justified. We are probably content to sit back and be influenced by the television advertisement currently in vogue or to stubbornly insist on Brand X simply because we have always used the stuff since we first became aware of the view through a windscreen.

When I recently spent a day at the Castrol Research Laboratories at Bracknell in Berkshire I found that these questions, and several others which I had carefully prepared, were really quite irrelevant. For crude oil, the stuff that gushers are made of, is really of very little concern to Castrol, or to any other producer of lubricating oil for that matter. Crude oil is to Castrol as iron ore is to a car manufacturer. As vehicle makers use a processed form of raw material (steel in their case), so Castrol uses base oil, or ” lube stock” as they call it, which is a by-product of the crude oil refining process, being given off at one of the levels of the fractional distillation columns.

Wandering through the spacious and well-appointed laboratories, doing our best not to become mixed up with a party of Soviet citizens over here for the International Six Days’ Trial, and sporting Manx badges to boot, my first impression was that here were things Mr. H. G. Wells, or perhaps even Dr. Who, would have delighted in. The intricate glassware and pipework were; to a non-scientist like myself, fearsomely futuristic, but to the experts of Castro! they were as familiar as electric light switches. Every laboratory was well bestowed with masses of highly complex and expensive equipment, including a spectrophotometer capable of carrying out in seconds an analysis which would take as many hours if done chemically. During the two years that this establishment has been open, and indeed in the years before, the graphical results of this instrument have been preserved and indexed so that CastroL now has what is virtually a chemical Scotland Yard which can turn up a graph to identify a complex organic additive in much the same way as fingerprints are used to bring down stern arms on the shoulders of transgressors.

The establishment is divided into four main departments, the first of which is the Organic Research Laboratory, hub of a continuous search not for a new oil but for new chemical additives for the existing base oil. New blends of existing additives are not so much the goal as completely new ones. I ventured not into the realms of what these new additives were likely to be, or what they were likely to do, for I could almost see the ” Hush-hush ” stamp leaping from its resting place and making its impression right in the middle of my notebook.

The secret of an efficient research laboratory, so I was told, is the ability to recognise a dead horse early and bury it, rather than spend lots of precious man-hours fruitlessly trying to revive it. This is one of the maxims of the research department, where each bench is under the care of a graduate chemist, each of whom works in an amazingly aroma-free atmosphere.

The Development Department Works very closely with Research. Indeed, their two functions are almost integrated, the one carrying on the successes of the other.

The Analytical Services Department is the trouble-shooting branch of the establishment. Not only does it investigate customers’ queries, but feeds back all manner of useful gets to the other departments on whose behalf numerous complicated are made.

Lastly, we have the Pilot Plant, but it is most certainly not deserving of the adjective least. On the contrary, it is probably the only place at Bracknell which has just claim to be called big. It is here that the test tube gives way to the larger pressure vessel, where laboratory techniques are adapted by the use of larger quantities in preparation for full-scale mass production. The problems of a laboratory bench differ greatly from those of production installations, and in the Pilot Plant the bugs of the scaling-up. process are ironed out.

Supporting the four main departments are various ancillary services, including a workshop which even turns out furniture, a comprehensive library, restaurants and a conference room. In the grounds, signs of construction activity are evident. A new engine test house is nearing completion and, when the present Engine Test Department moves from its existing home at Hayes, Castrol’s research activity will be completely centralised.

What is the range of Castrol’s work at Bracknell, anyway ? Though oil is their life blood they are obviously uninterested in such things as salad additives or suntan producers, but wherever there is a lubrication problem you can bet that Castrol are concerned somewhere along the line. Aviation turbine oils, radiationresistant oils for nuclear power stations, dewatering fluids, the peculiar problems of grease, which is nothing more than oil with something added to make it ” stand up “; all these things are very much the concern of the Castro! researchers. The Wankel engine brought something of a poser, but on investigation it was found not to be a new problem, more a new combination of ones already solved in themselves.

I learned that oil is virtually indestructible in art engine. The trouble starts when it is contaminated by the products of combustion in the cylinders, such contamination greatly reducing the oil’s lubricative properties and causing premature wear on surfaces. Foreign matter from the combustion chamber is most likely to he introduced to the lubricant during cold running, a period far more damaging to the oil, and to the engine itself of course, than long, hard motorway drives.

Nowhere on the premises did I detect the delicious aroma of Castrol R. Indeed, it was difficult to detect any Odour at all except in one or two remote corners, such was the efficiency of the air conditioning which provides twenty complete air changes per hour. The need for R-type oils is apparently diminishing. Modern mineral oils are just as good, and in many cases better, since ” R ” tends to become rubbery when contaminated, gumming up the works, as it were. There are certain specialised uses, of course, for which ” R ” continues to be produced.

A very particularised study carried on in the Development Department at Bracknell is that of hydraulic fluid, and it takes place under the eagle eye of a completely dedicated man—and an amazingly tall one at that—who always has before him the fact that an inferior oil can only wreck an engine, but an inferior brake fluid may well destroy human lives. Hydraulic fluid is not a simple juice by any means, despite the fact that its most vital ingredient seems to be sheer sweat. It has to live for two or three years at least and must comply with certain standards which though not vitally essential in this country, are insisted upon by car manufacturers So that their export vehicles can comply. As most makers use the same fluid for both home and export cars, we in Britain benefit from the stringent regulations enforced overseas.

Of necessity, brake fluids must have high boiling points so that they can withstand the rigours of repeated hard braking. Unfortunately, the stuff has a high affinity for water which greatly lowers the boiling point, thus reducing its efficiency. Castro’ Racing Brake Fluid boils, when moisture-free, at 520F. With only 0.5% moisture content this is reduced to 450F. One can easily visualise the danger of exposing the innards of a hydraulic system on a damp day at a racing circuit.

Pride of this department is the Citroen, which houses what is undoubtedly a complete hydraulic factory and relies upon Castrol for all its U.K. fluid needs.

Whilst at Bracknell, I came across various projects which brought very carefully phrased answers to my questions. It is to Castras credit that they did not attempt to fob me off. They supplied me with all the answers (well, nearly all of them) despite the blanket of secrecy which obviously shrouded these shapes of things to come. My oath of silence forbids that I should talk about these prototypes here, but take it from me that Castrol have a very open eye to the future, whilst at the same time they are taking great pains to constantly look for means of improving their things of the present.

When next I pop a pint into my own sump it will be with the reassuring knowledge that there are places like the Bracknell Research Laboratories solidly behind the stuff that slowly trickles in.—G. P.