How the Geelong Refinery manufactures solvents to help Australian industry

Andrew Duthie

While people naturally associate refineries with the production of fuels and bitumen, solvents that are required for the manufacture of a variety of everyday products are also produced at Viva Energy’s Geelong Refinery. Senior Associate Technologist with Viva Energy’s Specialities team, Andrew Duthie, explains the valuable role that solvents play in supporting Australian industries.

The Geelong Refinery has been an important part of Australia’s manufacturing landscape since 1954, with more than $450 million invested into the facility over the past five years, it is well positioned to expand into new areas of energy supply and production.

Viva Energy CEO, Scott Wyatt, recently announced that Viva Energy is assessing a number of future energy development projects that could be co-located with the refinery, to diversify and strengthen its operations over time. If implemented, these would establish Geelong as a future ‘Energy Hub’ for Victoria and South East Australia, providing ongoing employment for skilled workers in Geelong, support the transition to lower carbon energies and enhance Australia’s energy security.

The manufacturing scope of the refinery already extends beyond fuel, as it has been supplying Australian industries with solvents for over sixty years. In fact, today the Geelong Refinery is the only major producer of hydrocarbon solvents in Australia.

Essential for Australian industries

With a PhD in chemical synthesis, Andrew Duthie is highly qualified as Viva Energy’s chemicals technical manager. Responsible for quality control across all the hydrocarbon solvents that Viva Energy supplies, he plays a vital role given that the solvents manufactured at the refinery are used in a diverse range of applications and products.

Andrew sees these products all around us, and knows the contribution they make to a multitude of Australian industries.

“If you go down to your local hardware store, almost every aisle you walk down will contain a product made with one of our solvents,” he says. “That’s because we supply chemicals to such a wide range of industries, from adhesives and coatings to the mining, agriculture chemistry, pharmaceutical, timber treatment and cleaning sectors.

“Paints and varnishes do more than enhance appearance. They improve durability and extend the life of the material’s use. Metal components of cars and structures would rust without their protective coatings. Timber would rot without protective treatment.

“Our solvents are also used to produce the copper piping that carries our water supply, and the nickel and cobalt used to make rechargeable batteries. They’re vital for the manufacture of many different products that we rely on every day.”

Providing technical support

Andrew and his team have a strong focus on the needs of their customers. For a product manufactured with a solvent to be effective, the solvent used must have very specific properties. The team at the Geelong Refinery has the resources, technical capability and skill to ensure the chemicals they manufacture and supply are fit for purpose and on-grade.

Andrew’s team helps develop formulations for new applications that customers might be pursuing, and performs tests to help customers monitor their production processes. They also analyse customer product samples. This level of technical support is only possible because of the laboratory at the Geelong Refinery.

“Our customers typically don’t have access to the equipment required to analyse and measure properties of solvents, even basic instruments like a densitometer or a conductivity meter. That’s where we can help.

“In the lab we can perform all the standard tests on solvents, as well as more advanced analysis such as gas chromatography, which we use to check the purity of our solvents and ensure compliance with the components’ concentrations limits. It can also be used to determine the composition of samples from our customers.

“We’re set up to really analyse products in-depth, which is a huge benefit for our customers – and a major point of difference for us.”

Applying professional expertise

Andrew is driven to supply the best quality chemical products possible, and so he is meticulous when it comes to quality control at the source of manufacture.

He works closely with the Geelong Refinery to manufacture solvents that meet particular specifications. “I set the requirements for each of our products and develop the technical data sheets, which describe both the product specification and its typical properties. If a product doesn’t meet a certain property, I work with the refinery operators to make changes within the processing units that will get it spot-on for our customers.

“At the end of the day it comes back to product quality. Producing and supplying high-quality products that meet the requirements of our customers is ultimately how Viva Energy makes a positive difference to their businesses.”

Reasons to be proud

Andrew is proud of the way his tight-knit team collaborates, and of the new product innovations they’ve been responsible for manufacturing at the Geelong Refinery.

“In 2017 we launched a new solvent called Vivasol X55, which is used for adhesives, thinners, cleaning of auto transmissions and brakes, tyre re-tread and tyre shine.

“We’ve recently developed another product called Hexane, which is used to extract canola oil,” he explains. “After the canola seeds are pressed, Hexane helps to extract further oil and maximise the yield. We’re looking at other applications for Hexane as well, such as adhesives.

“We’re always looking for other solvents we can make at Geelong. We’ve got good capability to produce a wide range of hydrocarbon solvents, whether they’re cut straight from crude oil or require further refining or blending.”

Andrew believes that his team’s determination to find new products that meet changing customer demands will stand Viva Energy in good stead for years to come. “In the last few years we’ve seen a general transition to lower aromatic solvents, especially in wood treatment products. We’ve taken up that challenge and now supply VivaSol D80 for use in low odour timber treatment products. We’re also exploring other areas it might be used, like in firelighters.”

He’s also proud to be part of a successful team. “I’m extremely proud of the Specialties team, but also of Viva Energy as a whole. It’s great to see everyone in the company helping our customers to achieve their goals, with whatever products they’re manufacturing and supplying, and succeeding in that.”

Learn more about the solvents that Viva Energy manufactures.

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