Engineering Anniversaries

Article by David White CEng FIChemE

ExxonMobil’s Fawley refinery celebrates 70 years

THIS article acknowledges the landmark 70th anniversary of ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso’s 1951 refinery at Fawley, UK; the centenary of the original refinery; and that of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. It also covers the role that chemical engineers have played in creating such a successful complex facility with a full recognition of the part that Birmingham University played in the evolution of the refinery and IChemE.

Exxon’s Fawley refinery was officially opened on 14 September 1951. Situated on the western shore of Southampton Water, it is the largest UK refinery and one of the most complex in Europe. The marine terminal handles over 2,000 ship movements a year and 22m t/y of crude oil. The refinery processes around 270,000 bbl/d of crude, which is roughly 20% of UK refining capacity.

Fawley: The build

The initial (1951) investment covered primary distillation, product improvement with hydrodesulfurisation, aromatics extraction, and a comprehensive lubricants processing and blending facility. At that time the products were LPG, three grades of petrol, paraffin, white spirit, tractor vaporising oil, jet fuel, diesel, gas oil, heavy fuel oil and bitumen.

1951: Prime Minister Clement Attlee unveiling the commemorative plaque at the opening ceremony

In 1963, a major expansion in distillation capacity was installed (beyond today’s level) to supply the (then) Central Electricity Generating Board’s 2,000 MW power station build just south of the refinery. The station closed some years ago and the refinery throughput adjusted. The demolition of the boiler house and turbine house by explosives on 29 July 2021 was featured on national new bulletins.

Refining is a complex operation that depends on the skills of operators, engineers and planners to process some 20 different types of crude to match market demand. Even from the time the refinery opened, investment was needed to expand capacity. Subsequently, the greatest challenge has been driven by changes to the specification of transport fuels.

Initially, investment was required to cope with the switch to unleaded petrol in the 1970s. Then, major reductions to sulfur levels in jet fuel, diesel and marine fuels have all required major investment in new units and upgrades to other equipment. In addition, very sophisticated synthetic lubricants were developed. More recently, additional investment has been needed for ultra-low sulfur levels to meet government requirements on emissions, and four years ago, there was a major project to make Isopar, a product widely used in industry. In 2021, a new fuel for the agricultural market has been launched. Designed to help the sector reduce its carbon footprint, and named HVO30, it is a blend of Synergy diesel and 30% biofuels. Simultaneously, the oil companies were required to introduce a new grade of petrol containing bio-ethanol to meet Government requirements introduced on 1 September 2021. Another major project to increase the output of ultra-low sulfur diesel has been shelved (presumably while government clarifies its views on drive-trains for HGVs to meet their zero emissions targets). The latest development has been negotiating an agreement with Porsche to develop and test a renewable racing fuel.

These days, Exxon’s product distribution is primarily done by pipeline. Every day, some 30m L of clean products are transported to terminals at Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham airports for local use and road distribution. Thus, 95% of clean products are moved underground. The volumes will have reduced recently with the reduction in car use and aircraft demand.

Peter Titmuss /
Fawley today: The 50,000 boundary trees Exxon planted are now mature and form a large screen

Alongside the market for straight petroleum products was a rapidly-growing market for unsaturated hydrocarbons, particularly ethylene, propylene and butylene. The potential was huge and in 1960 led to the formation of ExxonMobil Chemicals, with feedstocks supplied by the refinery. This industrial feedstock source prompted the building of processing complexes adjacent to Fawley by International Synthetic Rubber, Monsanto, and Union Carbide – all drawing feedstock from the refinery, with Air Products supplying industrial gases.

A multi-skilled management team was required to manage the operation with a significant number of chemical engineers. In the 1950s there were about 400 graduate (mostly chemical) engineers at Fawley. Until about 1960, the majority of them came from Birmingham University and advanced up the management tree. A steady stream of graduates has continued to flow from Birmingham to Exxon. It is a great credit to the refinery management to run the operation so successfully that it has continued to be the prime location for the corporation’s investment in Europe.

From the beginning, the company was aware of the environmental sensitivities of a refinery in an area so close to the New Forest National Park area and a major port. It planted some 50,000 trees around the boundary of its land. They are now mature and form a large screen. Some 20 species of birds have been identified in this habitat. The tree belt has also attracted leading ornithologists, with reports of the success of the screen in attracting wildlife. Likewise, the salt marshes along the foreshore have been monitored and preserved. The site’s emissions have steadily fallen, with a major step reduction when £60m (US$83m) was spent on a combined heat and power plant giving a thermal efficiency of 75%.

Fawley’s old refinery, Birmingham University, and the links with IChemE

While Fawley celebrates its 70th anniversary, its development is intertwined with that of IChemE and the University of Birmingham. A simple refinery had been built in 1921 on the foreshore at Fawley primarily to produce ships’ bunker fuel. The 1951 refinery was built on higher land next to the original facilities.

Over the same timeframe, discussions about the creation of IChemE were beginning. The debate started in 1880 when George E Davis proposed forming a new professional body. This view was not shared by his compatriots, many of whom wanted a trade association, so the idea was shelved for many years.

During World War I, the need for a more scientific approach to the problems of chemical plant was encouraged by Lord Moulton (then Director of the UK’s Explosives Supply Department). He had mobilised a team to increase explosives production 20-fold and encouraged the creation of a specialising group. Having established that there was a need to expand the discipline, Sir John Cadman was appointed Government Inspector of Mines, and then Professor of Mining at Birmingham University. He quickly spotted the potential growth of an oil industry and established a group he entitled “Petroleum Engineering”, that broke away from chemicals and mining towards the rapidly-growing oil processing industry. He persuaded influential colleagues to support the idea and started a group at Birmingham University. Seeing the ground-swell of interest, Professor JW Hinchley called a meeting in July 1918, which attracted some 70 attendees. By October 1918, a chemical engineering group was formed but not before overcoming suggestions such as the notion of linking with the Institutes of Mechanical or Civil Engineers.

Finally, the resolution was passed to set up the Institution of Chemical Engineers and it remained to be ratified and structured in 1921. In parallel with these developments, Sir John Cadman (while Inspector of Mines in Trinidad and Tobago), saw the further potential for oil, helped commercialise it, and then set up a course at Birmingham University entitled Petroleum Engineering. Both he and George E Davis have a claim to being the first two chemical engineers. Later Sir John Cadman was appointed Chairman of BP. The early blossoming of IChemE was therefore very closely related to the oil industry.

Parallel developments

Over the period of embryonic development, the growing interest in oil products at the beginning of the 21st Century led Sir Thomas Redwood to establish the Institute of Petroleum Technologists in 1913. In 1938 it was renamed the Institute of Petroleum. It was a trade association, but its particular focus was not technology. It was focused on setting industry standards for testing and measurement procedures especially in a field where European and American definitions and standards might differ.

Impact of oil

A significant boost for oil came in 1919, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty. He decreed that oil, not coal, should become the fuel for the Navy. The major ship owners then saw that bunkering could be substantially speeded up by pumping oil instead of shoveling coal, so they too sought supplies. A small group of entrepreneurial Welsh mine owners got together, and seeing that there was a market opportunity, purchased some 600 acres (242 ha) on the foreshore on Southampton Water at Fawley. They then invited the Atlantic Gulf and West Indies Oil (AGWI) to build a refinery to process heavy crude oil primarily for the bunker trade with ready access to the ocean liners using the port. AGWI built the refinery and started it up in 1921 and then was subsequently purchased by Anglo American Oil Company in 1925 – the UK trading name of Standard Oil New Jersey at that time (ie Esso, now ExxonMobil).

The 1920s and 1930s also saw a growing demand for petrol, aviation fuel and lubricants to support the blossoming markets. Refinery processes were therefore needed to increase the yield of these lighter fuels.  

In 1922, Dr F H Garner was appointed as Chief Chemist at Fawley after qualifying at Birmingham University and spending 4 years in the US at the Mellon Institute and Pittsburgh University studying oil processing. He, along with two colleagues, Sir Oliver Lodge and Dr Frank Tinkler developed a thermal cracking process at Birmingham University in conjunction with Fawley, where the process was successfully tested and installed at the refinery. Sir Oliver had already been Principal of Birmingham University from 1900 until 1920. He was the first to identify electromagnetic waves and is credited with being first to demonstrate electrostatic precipitation. Precipitators were subsequently used in the new Exxon refinery to dewater diesel streams.

To extend the processes at the refinery, it appointed its first chemical engineer from Birmingham University, Frank Mayo, who subsequently became manager of the 1951 refinery. Garner continued in the role of Chief Chemist at Fawley until he took charge of the newly-formed (then) Esso European Laboratories. He held this position until he was appointed to the Chair of Oil Engineering at Birmingham University in 1942, and was duly appointed Professor of Oil Engineering and Refining.

During World War II, Garner and his team – including Mayo and Austin Pearce (who would later be appointed as Esso UK’s CEO) – did a great deal of research work for the government in the war effort, including the development of the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation ( FIDO) to clear military runways of fog. Both received PhDs for their work. This contribution to the war effort gave Garner and the profession a high profile, especially in influential circles. His research and management skills also attracted considerable sponsorship from Exxon and other major oil companies to expand the Department at Birmingham to a Centre of Excellence in support of the oil and petrochemicals industries. As a result, many consider that Garner put chemical engineering on the map while enhancing the reputation of IChemE. The name of the chair/faculty was changed to Chemical Engineering in 1946. Raising the profile of chemical engineering in Whitehall must have contributed to IChemE being awarded a royal charter in 1956.

As the need for chemical engineers spread, many other universities set up faculties of chemical engineering and today there are 29 with IChemE-accredited courses in the UK. It was not until 1938 that Shell sponsored a chair to establish chemical engineering at Cambridge. Most of the universities have strong links with IChemE, and its Presidency has been shared between academia and industry. Exxon has had its share, with Dr C Windebank, AW Forster, Dr K Taylor, and most recently Dame Judith Hackitt from Exxon Chemicals (although she was not with the company during her term as President).

As IChemE grew, special interest groups were formed. They ran seminars and conferences on a wide range of topics. Pharmaceuticals, biochemicals and food processing technologies became increasingly important but the clean use of energy remains a major challenge. The Energy Conversion Technology Special Interest Group formed in 1994, ran many international conferences and was recently renamed the Clean Technology SIG, focusing on pathways to zero emissions while using hydrocarbons cleanly.  


The Fawley achievement over the past 70 years is a great tribute to the chemical engineers who have managed it over that period. It continues to flourish and adapt to substantial changes in market demand and new product development. The bonds between Exxon, the old refinery, Birmingham University and IChemE forged the professional institution we know today. George E Davies had the foresight to see the need for a new discipline and the cause was eventually picked up by Sir John Cadman. He and Garner gave their support and the embryonic Institution emerged. Garner was then appointed Chief Chemist at Fawley. He, along with Sir Oliver Lodge and Dr Frank Tinkler developed a cracking process piloted at Birmingham and then successfully installed it at Fawley. Garner’s promotion to Chief Chemist at Esso’s European laboratories and their work on oil technology and for the government during WW2 elevated the profile of the profession and IChemE considerably.

Once the discipline was established, its application spread rapidly. Today it has been harnessed in pharmaceuticals, food, biochemicals, and water treatment for example, and with fresh challenges of plastics waste handling, carbon capture and storage, and clean energy usage.

Key personnel in the formation of IChemE

  • George E Davies: Perceived the need for a new discipline called chemical engineering
  • Lord Moulton: Saw a requirement for engineering and science to study chemical production
  • Prof JW Hinchley: Called a meeting of 70 people emerging with an agreement to set up an Institution to study chemical engineering with the legal framework ratified in 1921
  • Sir John Cadman: Set up a course in Petroleum Engineering at Birmingham University, later becoming chairman of BP
  • Sir Oliver Lodge: Worked with Dr Tinkler to develop the Lodge-Tinkler process for thermal cracking at Birmingham University in conjunction with Dr Garner. The process was then installed at Fawley under the supervision of Garner
  • Dr Frank Tinkler: Co-developed a thermal cracking process at Birmingham University in conjunction with Fawley
  • Prof FH Garner: After a comprehensive training in oil processing technology, he was appointed Chief Chemist at Fawley and subsequently Chief Chemist to the Esso European Laboratories. He was appointed Professor of Oil Engineering at Birmingham after the death of the incumbent in 1942. His work for the government during the war then raised the profile of chemical engineering, substantially establishing its place in the mainstream university courses. The Birmingham course was renamed as “Chemical Engineering” in 1948
  • Prof J Biddlestone: Wrote the History of the Chemical Engineering Department at Birmingham

Article by David White CEng FIChemE

IChemE Fellow, and Exxon/Mobil annuitant with 30 years' service, working at Fawley in Operations Management from 1957 to 1977; founder member of the Energy Conversion Technology Subject Group in 1994 and Chair for several years.

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