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Podcast: The Sound of the Blending Revolution

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Podcast: The Sound of the Blending Revolution

The cost of powering a blending plant is immense, especially in the age of expensive energy. Any blender that wants to reduce its carbon footprint must focus attention on Scope 1 emissions – those from purchased power.

One family-owned lubricant and paint firm from the United Kingdom drew on its experience of the paint business and realised that using existing technology could slash its energy costs, speed up blending time and even get the product packaged quicker than ever. And that’s not all.

Listen to this podcast talking to Nigel Bottom of Witham Group and their journey into the realm of ultrasound lubricant blending technology! Nigel talks to our technology contributor Trevor Gauntlett.

Transcript

TG: 0:00. Hello everyone and welcome to the latest Lubes’n’Greases podcast. My name’s Trevor Gauntlett. I’m going to be talking today with Nigel Bottom, of the Witham Group and we’ll explain the why to that in a minute.

We are following up on an article that was in Lubes’n’Greases in January 2023 about energy savings in the blending process. Something which due to high energy prices has been prevalent, I think, in everyone’s minds over the last couple of months, maybe the last year and a half or so. I’m going to leave it to Nigel to introduce himself, but direct you to the article in Lubes’n’Greases from January 2023. So Nigel, welcome to the podcast. Would you like to introduce yourself the Witham Ggroup and then eventually get us to Blendtek, the technology for ultrasound mixing of lubricants, which you have in your portfolio?

NG: 1:11. Thank you, Trevor. Yep, hi, everybody, Nigel Bottom, group managing director Witham Group in Lincoln. 103-year-old family-owned business and run, based in Lincolnshire, but covering the whole of the UK manufacturers of lubricants and paint.

TG: 1:26. As I understand it, you came across ultrasound mixing from the paint industry or the food processing industry. Would you like to talk to us a little bit about how you came across it and how it was then adapted for lubricants?

NG: 1:44. Witham Group were looking, through direction of the board and of course our customers asking to see how we can be more sustainable and more environmentally compliant and friendly, for want of a better description. And we started looking at our whole business to reduce “a third, a third and a third.” So, a third of our business is raw material in, a third of our business is products out the door, with lubricant being solution for many environmentally sustainable practices. And then a third was, of course, ourselves. 

So, we started talking to our larger raw material suppliers, to our base oil suppliers and our technology suppliers. And they had their own ideas on how they could become more environmentally friendly and more sustainable, which we encouraged and we took on board. But that was only one third of our whole outlook. 

So, we worked with them. And where we could replace a raw material with something more environmentally acceptable than we have done. So, these are all practices that we brought into the business. We also looked at our packaging, so where we could replace our plastic packaging with 130% recycled package that already had 30% recycled media within it. Then of course, we took all these different ideas on board and, and as a business and as a board, we worked on that. 

The other third, at the far end, was sort of education and talking to all our customers to see how we could work with them to make our products more environmentally sensitive for their business. So, taking the hydraulic example if they could use a biodegradable hydraulic oil would they use that? So they were fairly, and I dare say relatively easy steps, within any business and certainly our business, we started recycling water. So greywater systems were put in, of course solar panels, and of course LED lights. But this is all what a lot of people have done elsewhere. But the big elephant in the room, Trevor, was our blending site and our work towards becoming carbon neutral with our blending and how we could really start to work on that and make that happen. 

We came across some technology that was being extensively used in the paint industry for blending and manufacturing of paints. And I suppose a chance conversation and a bit of education and a bit of a talk and putting this together – if it would make paint and knowing the way that paint is manufactured – we felt it could be using the technology of sonics for one two of what Blendtek is heavily based on could be used to blend oil and could that work and would that work? 

So our technical team and our production team started with a very simple bench test sonic blender, which is now called Blendtek. And we worked on our first blend of oils. Of course, we started with the harder ones, so some of the heavier gear oils and some of the heavier engine oils, to see if it would work. And we in essence tried to incorporate the system in exactly the same way as we currently batch blend our products. As I understand, it the way you conventionally make oil and why we weren’t certainly making oil would be a big steel tank, conical base, you would add all your raw material within there in a certain order, you’d heat the products either before and certainly throughout and afterwards. And you would set a paddle mixing those products for up to maybe two to four hours, depending on what the product is. Obviously, there are other versions of those blending techniques. We use gas to heat, because Lincoln has got a good supply of gas up here at the factory. Other companies I understand we’ll use jackets, so either steam from big steam boilers, or, of course electric, to create that same heat. 

But our gas usage was huge. And even before all these price increases of a year ago, with shortages, or a couple of years ago, our gas usage was very extensive, obviously, as many others are.

So, we took the bench test, and basically started scaling that up. In essence, the way it works is very simple. So, it’s using sound as a resonance to blend at the molecular level all our raw materials. The great advantage was, of course, or is of course, we didn’t need to heat the product in any way shape or form. So, we didn’t have to keep the products in the tanks warm, trace heated. And we certainly didn’t need to heat it when it was actually being blended. All throughout the blending, it was actually being cold, what they call cold boiled. So quoting figures, there’s 2.1 million cycles per second in a in an ultrasonic cavitation system. So the way we worked it and the way we designed it is the oil would go in one end, it would go through the sonic reactor, the ultrasound would, like I said, at a molecular level would mix the different ingredients, 10, 25 30, whatever, however many they were, and it would come out the other end through a cycle and then back through to be to be blended. I’ve just explained that probably in two minutes that actually took us two and a half years to develop and get right and hone and tune in and get correct. And this was done obviously in times when we were making products in the conventional way. 

But we started to involve different trusts and different power companies that would come and measure how much each blend was taken in kilowatts. And they gave us a figure external of our own investigations ago was a figure of 19,182 kilowatts of power per 10-ton blend, which was approximately our standard size blend we made some much bigger than that and obviously some much smaller but approximately 10 tons. So 10-ton and blend would be 19,182 kilowatts. When we started employing and using the Blendtek solution system, the actual kilowatt hour usage for per blend for 10 ton reduced to 8 kilowatts. So the reduction in actual kilowatts being used – and our mantra which was the cleanest kilowatt is the one you never use – started coming into fruition. So not using any heat or we reduced our gas usage by 93%. So just over 90%.

We still use a certain amount of gas, but that’s mainly practices throughout the factory, our blending time, reduced from two to four hours of mixing a 10-ton blend to somewhere in the region of about 40 minutes. As I’ve said a 10-ton blend now uses only eight kilowatts of power instead of 19 162. We have no heat from the point of view of damaging the blend, so we have no heat whatsoever. There’s lower chance of any waste. And we’re actually able to blend much smaller batches if we need to, not that we’d want to, and in lot of cases, but the slow-moving low volume lines. We can obviously run because we’re not actually putting it into a huge vessel to then put a paddle in to mix it up.

All our electricity comes from solar panel, though we have solar panels into battery on the factory here at Lincoln site at Lincoln. So the electricity that we use for using the Blendtek solution is run off basically a 13-amp plug. So it’s a very standard take a drawer of electricity for that. And yeah, we’re very super proud of what we’ve achieved and what we are achieving. So it was a fairly simple equation of how much power we’re actually generating how much power we’re actually using, which then enabled them to give us a title that we weren’t blending all our lubricants, every lubricant that Witham Group blends now are blended carbon neutrally. But they’re carbon neutrally blended in the correct way. And not, dare I say the cynical way, which is just going to offset it by buying trees throughout the UK or islands or abroad. It’s actually truly not using the power. So we’re not, we’re not we’re not taking any of that fossil fuel for the gas or electricity.

TG: 10:37. Just for our non-British listeners of this, a 13-amp plug is a standard domestic arrangement. So you’re taking 220 to 240 volts at 50 Hertz. And obviously, just running a very small current through that if you’ve got a 13-amp fuse in that. So it really is a very small power consumption.

And you mentioned some of the advantages in terms of shorter blend times, which also then reduces the energy consumption, the very low power requirements, which of course, reduces the energy consumption. 

Now, I’m gonna give you a real challenge here, Nigel, for an audio podcast. But can you describe the system as it looks in your own factory so that people can get an idea of the size and the simplicity/complexity of the system?

NG: 11:54. Yeah, the actual system is very compact. It’s in the region of – sizing, the tube is three meters long, it’s a diameter of approximately 40 centimeters. So that that’s the actual reaction tube. So if you can imagine that laid on its side, our idea was in the really early days was it to fit within an area that it could be moved around. So it needed to fit on two standard EU pallets that could be moved around on a pallet truck, so the weight is very minimal. And we would in essence, take the tubular processor to the bulk storage tanks. In actual fact, the way we have it physically set up here is they are fixed now. And each and each tubular processor is fixed on a on a bench.

But it is basic as plug in the wall to control the electronics control cabinet, somewhere in the region of 1 meter by 500 centimeters, that’s all the electronic controls. And then flowing from there to the tubular processor, as I’ve described, then the batch container, which is where all the products starts and ends up, but they can be a win-win on that as well as all our tanks because we used to use physical agitation, i.e., a big paddle in the in the tank itself. They used to be conical bottoms. And they also used to be cylindrical, because that was the way that you could put it obviously put a paddle inside it. With the lack of physical agitation, in actual fact, you can now use and we are starting to swap over to vertical square tanks, which would obviously take significantly less room and can be placed anywhere we need it to go.

Next to the tubular processes, of course, we’ve got a number of different pumps. So we’re pumping in the additive and offload cell. And we’re also pumping in our bases. But again, these are all existing pumps and existing pipe work. We’ve literally just moved the out to the tubular processor. And we set up a cycle that it runs from the raw material tanks through the tubular process into the batch container. And once we’ve got that circuit, working with air pumps and pumping it around, then in essence, once that’s gone through the system for up to, as I said, 40 minutes, then that product is blended.

Unfortunately, Trevor, it’s not very sexy. And unfortunately it’s not very exciting, but it really works. So I think a lot of people have been around our site from European blenders to the technical partners of many major companies who have come to have a look at what we’ve been doing and employed it themselves. I think they’re expecting something much bigger and much sexier. But it’s really just a stainless steel tube with some very fancy electronics next to it. And within it.

TG: 15:14. There is, of course, one advantage that we haven’t mentioned up to now the system, or at least according to the version of where I wrote in the article, book, because you can move this system around basically on a trolley, you eliminate a hose exchange, or a significant part of any hose exchange. Could you just talk through that, because that’s an operational safety issue.

NG: 15:43. The retrofitting of the tubular processor, in essence, you’re putting it within a line of your raw materials. So as wherever you’re bringing your raw materials to So currently, that would probably be into the top or the rear of the batch container. In essence, she’ll just bring it all to the tubular processor. So the wash out, or the pig line or the raw material is very small, because the only part that you would need to wash through or clean through afterwards, from a batch to batch processing point of view is approximately 100 liters, basically the tube. So you’ve got zero liquid, relatively zero wash through, which is not true in many of the batch operations.

The other idea and something which has not been taken to sort of full fruition is, is of course, if all you need is a standard electricity source to do this, you can in essence set up a blending plant anywhere in the world, immediately. You don’t have to have huge amounts of investment in tanks, blending tanks, you don’t have to have huge amounts of investment in storage tanks, you really only need to have an electricity supply, and you can, as long as you’ve got access to base oils, which bases throughout the world, as long as you’ve got access to that, and then the technology, then of course, you can just blend wherever you want, and however much you need. So the investment to become blending in certain regional areas very, very easy to get into, and very, very, very cheap to do as well, compared to previous applications.

TG: 17:33. And on that there’s scalability, which, again, we discussed previously in the latest research article. There’s a demo on your website of basically blending in an IBC. And I know you said earlier on you don’t really like doing that for understandable reasons for anybody who’s ever worked in a business where where you’ve got to make small blends. But do you actually do that kind of thing for customers; blend in IBCs even potentially blend in a drum just because it’s a specialty lubricant?

NG: 18:10. Yeah, I mean, if you’ve got a very specific gear application or turbine application, or even an engine oil that’s very unique. And that’s they want to look at the new end of products. But if you’ve got some sort of older out of spec, products that maybe is important to a selection of your customer base, then perhaps the sales of that, or volumes of that products are tailing off. But it’s still very, very important.

I think anybody in the oil industry understands the word commitment of molecules, and the commitment of your inventory of your raw materials, once committed, i.e., once blended into a finished product, is committed and gone. So perhaps if you’ve got a 10,000-liter blend, that’s great. But if that then last, maybe 12 months or even longer, in some instances, then those molecules have been committed and are there. To commit them, maybe 2,000 litres at a time or 1,000 liters at a time or even as you mentioned, Trevor, you know, drum at a time, 200 liters at a time, as long as dare I say the margin is there at the other end, then you’re not committing those base oils and you’re not committing those additives to the world. So you can keep that inventory of raw materials for possibly faster moving products.

TG: 19:35. And at the other end of the scale, when we’re talking about scalability, in principle, you could be up to 50-ton or larger blending vessels with some slight tweaks to the kit?

NG: 19:48. The actual unit was trialed and taken to, would you believe a blending, vessel of over a million liters. All right, so all you need is more tubes. You do the arithmetic have what you want the process to output, and you put them in line and next to each other. And the scalability is massive, just keeps going and going and going. It depends on whether you want to bolt together and put in a line. It’s dependent on how much raw material you can actually get to it. Because it does get to a point where pumps can only pump so much liquid, so much oil and so much basil. But the actual sonic blender is not the not the limiting factor in any way, shape or form.

TG: 20:31. And from a practical perspective, again, what are the kinds of ranges of product viscosities that this can handle?

NG: 20:41. Right up to the very thickest ISO 680s, right down to the very thinnest SAE 5s. So from the very highest viscosity to the very lowest, we’ve not had that we’ve not found anything that causes any issue with the blending in any way, shape or form. And that’s across every silo of our business. So hydraulic gear oils, transmission oils, ag oils, engine oils.

TG: 21:10: It’s an impressive range. But I guess I’ve planted something in people’s minds by mentioning viscosity, now. How do you cope with viscosity modifiers, which for some people, they start with solids, they’ve got to have a Silverson or another high-shear mixer, they’re boiling their oil pretty well at 100 plus degrees C in order to get that viscosity modifier into their multi-grades. How do these systems handle viscosity modifiers?

NG: 21:41. As long as the product can be pumped into the system, then the actual Blendtek solution part will mix with the base oils. So as long as it can be pumped and put into the machine or into the system, then that will then that will mix.

TG: 21:59. And just to be clear that when you’re blending lubricants using ultrasound, it this is not affected in any way by the base fluid. With ultrasound and lubricants, it wouldn’t matter whether you were blending with a PAG or a PAO, or mineral oil fields for some works with all of those. Is that true?

NG: 22:22. Absolutely true. So we’re using PAOs. We’re not using polyglycols too much within our actual business. But they’ve been used to test. And obviously, Group I, Group II without issue whatsoever.

TG: 22:34. Just roughly, if you know how many ultrasound blending systems are the other currently out there in the known world? Which is going to be a different perspective from everybody. If you’ve got any idea is it 10s less than 10?

NG: 22:54. Yeah, and 10s. And more. Clearly, it’s very new, it’s very different. It’s something that the impact on the lubricant industry, and I’m speaking on behalf of Witham Group now. I guess we’ll never be remembered for everything that we’ll do, or maybe anything, if I’m not being as arrogant, but one thing I’d like to be remembered for is possibly bringing this this technology to market. I see no barrier for any oil blender throughout the world to not be using or employing this technology now.

We’ve not seen this technology being used anywhere else in the world. We’ve not seen anybody who’s fully immersed themselves quite as much as we have as a blender in this technology. We still have access, of course to the older way of blending, and it’s always there as a second guess. But when you can reduce your kilowatts, we started the conversation when the first question was, “With high input prices, you know, is this the way forward?” Yes, of course it is. Everyone will have different gas usages. But if it’s £10,000 per month, or 100,000 a month or £1,000 a month, 93% is still 93%.

So if people can reduce both their cost but their environmental impact by doing this, I see no place in the future for mechanical oil blending. There is zero reason why to use that. Because even if you’re not generating your electricity by solar or any other means, then the usage of electricity to run this system is absolutely minimal.

It’s something that I encourage every oil blender to have a look at. The key being that one, you don’t need to heat your product. There’s no mechanics and they probably cut your time down by a quarter – three quarters cut down, so it’s a quarter of the time. So, I see no barriers, why you wouldn’t do it? And, of course, you don’t need to change your blending house or your area in any way shape or form. The same storage tanks in the same world.

The next thing to work on for us is to actually blend within finished fluid tanks. So there is no reason why it can’t do that as well. So taking a finished fluid tank with 25,000-liter capacity and 5,000 liters left, we take that 5,000 liters and we then start to mix another 20 into it. And we then circulate that through the Blendtek reactor. And that then basically negates any reason whatsoever to have a separate blending vessel, that you can actually blend to store. Which is great.

Another small little thing, and it was really small Trevor, it was probably one of those things that we didn’t really appreciate. But of course, when you’re heating everything to such a temperature when you’re manufacturing lubricants, obviously, you’ve got to let these things cool before you can fill them off into plastic containers. Especially if you’re blending direct to then fill, which we were in certain circumstances. Of course, when you’re filling them off cold – or when you’re blending them cold then you filling them cold as well, which is tremendous. So we have no lag to when we can then start using the product.

TG: 26:40. We’ve got a system 93% You say energy reduction, significant operational savings through shorter blending times you’ve just mentioned another one there and being able to fill at ambient temperature and not require any kind of cooling. It’s potentially a game changer. So I just like to say Nigel Bottom of the Witham Group, thank you very much for introducing us to ultrasound blending through your Blendtek product. And look forward to the next lubes and greases podcast. So Nigel, thank you very much. 

NG: Thanks, Trevor.