On an unremarkable industrial estate just past Queensferry in North Wales, less than a mile from the English border, lies an operation that can claim to be at the very frontier of industrial cleaning.
Willacy Oil was established in 1989 by George Willacy to clean the parts of the oil industry that other cleansing companies couldn’t reach. If you’re familiar with that part of the world, you’ll know it’s dominated by the huge Stanlow refinery, the second-largest in the UK. It’s not surprising that as specialist a service as this should have flourished in such an important petrochemical area.
Over the years, Willacy’s excellence in cleaning tanks and lagoons of waste oil and sludge meant that their reputation grew far and wide. As a result, they found their services were required around the world. How these tasks are performed, often in restricted areas, hazardous to humans, requires a level of technology that’s the envy of many an overgrown schoolboy.
The tour of the facility starts in one of the workshops. Various machine parts await installation or servicing. The surroundings are clean and organised, slightly more ‘lived in’ than the clinical minimalism of a Formula 1 garage, but certainly a world away from the greasy, blackened den that many people might expect to see.
My guide is Mike Evans, affable and knowledgeable in equal measure. He patiently explains the intricate details of the processes and parameters of a screw pump that’s currently being installed onto one of the machines in the second, larger workshop. In theory, safely removing large quantities of toxic sludge is a simple enough process – it’s only incredibly difficult in practice.
In a far corner sits a tracked machine, partly dismantled, looking like a more agricultural version of ‘Johnny 5’ of ‘Short Circuit’, the 80s family film. In reality, the machines used for these ‘special ops’ cleaning missions are more akin to the army’s remote-controlled devices for de-fusing bombs as they perform the very manual task of sludge-clearing without the need for a human to be there. When you consider the fact that many of the jobs they’re required to do will be in areas that offer poor access, poor lighting and ventilation and may involve harmful substances, it’s clear that there are serious safety reasons for all this technology and it’s far more necessary than merely an excuse to indulge a wish to use remote-controlled toys.
In addition, tank-cleaning can be an eye-wateringly expensive overhead for the client to absorb, especially when you consider the impact that downtime can have on profits. For this reason, it’s a task that may only be done every ten to fifteen years for any given tank. With such high stakes, the job has to be done perfectly and as quickly as possible, however unfavourable the conditions may be.
Willacy’s machines are not just made here at Sandycroft, they’re constantly being maintained, serviced, modified and re-fit in an effort to continually increase their capabilities. Through a strict adherence to the Continual Improvement Process, it may be said that Willacy’s machines have actually evolved over time to become better adapted to work more efficiently in their various environments. Not for the first time, it strikes me how similar all of this is to the hit TV show ‘Robot Wars’.
As we continued around the yard, we encountered an array of similar-looking, subtly different machines, each suited to its own particular task. Open-air lagoon cleaners can be taller and are liable to be utterly submerged while closed tank cleaners must maximise their access capability by being reducing height as much as possible. Pumping capabilities differ, as do the snow-plough-like sludge-pushing attachments.
Of course, where oil is concerned, getting the troublesome sludge out of the tank is only half the exercise. Next, it has to be re-processed, which means pumping it to another, rather anonymous-looking, machine. To most people, it’s a blue box; to anyone who knows anything about the process, it’s very obviously a centrifuge.
A centrifuge is necessary to spin the waste matter around and split any residual oil from all the clogging sediment. Again, it’s easy to be misled by all the chunky machinery – it may all look rather unsophisticated to the untrained eye but in practice, it’s vital to know what type of oil is being reclaimed because each variant will have very specific settings in the centrifuge to physically coax it away from the unhelpful foreign solids. Depending upon the oil type, the centrifuge is set to a specific number of revolutions per minute (rpm) – just like you’d choose a particular setting for a spin cycle to suit absorbent woollens or more water-resistant polyesters.
Having been successfully separated, the reclaimed oil is sent to be re-refined (yes, that is the correct term) while the sediment cake is correctly disposed of. The client now has a clean tank, which can be thrust back into action and a quantity of valuable oil back in a usable state.
There are wider opportunities to utilise many of these techniques beyond the oil industry, with water-based cleansing being the most obvious application. Originally referred to simply as ‘non-oil’, this may be the sector that affords Willacy the greatest opportunities for growth.
It’s easy to see why the oil market alone has served Willacy so well over the years but it’s also interesting to learn that they’re constantly embracing technology to ensure their services are as sought-after as ever in other markets. Mike shows me their latest innovation – a water-based variation of Sonar-mapping device which can show, to within a centimetre, how deep the sludge is, and how evenly spread, within a tank.
“The original sonar device [known as SPOT – Sludge Profiler for Oil Tanks] was developed around 1996 so it’s been around for 20 years – and has been tweaked and improved during this period”, Mike explains.
“Our latest innovation is a re-development of the original SPOT technology – which was designed for oil within enclosed crude oil tanks – to apply it to water environments. The sonar tool and software can now be used to map the levels of sludge at the bottom of lagoons, interceptor bays, or any other open stretches of water where there may be forms of sludge or waste settled. This will help us diversify and use our skills and knowledge developed and gained within the oil industry and adapt that into water and other industries.”
The more the client knows about the scale of their sludge problem, the better able they are to manage their assets. The need to monitor sludge levels isn’t new but the technology allows a far safer and more accurate means of testing than the old-fashioned ‘person with a stick’ method.
Whatever the future holds, you can be sure that with Willacy’s dynamism and focus on excellence, the innovations that originated in this unassuming Deeside facility will continue to impress clients around the world for many years to come.