Utah home to first major innovation in gasoline refining in nearly 80 years

In what was viewed as a “big, important day” in fuel production, Utah leaders and Chevron officials celebrated the recent opening of a first-of-its-kind facility that uses the biggest innovation in the gasoline refining process since the 1940s.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson was among those on hand on Monday afternoon as Chevron and Honeywell celebrated the operation of ISOALKY, the world's first commercial-scale unit using liquid salt in the alkylation process for creating fuel at the Chevron plant in Salt Lake City. Its opening comes after about a decade of testing the process at the refinery.

“This technology ... is a pretty big deal for us,” said Bryon Stock, general manager of Chevron's Salt Lake refinery. “In the particular field of alkylation, nothing like this has happened in probably the last 80 years. So that's why we're here celebrating.”

The new process, which went online in January, will help with octane levels in gasoline and can be used in the production of Tier 3 fuel, which has the ability to reduce vehicle emissions 12% to 80%.

Laura Leonard, vice president and general manager of Honeywell UOP, explained the gasoline people fuel up with is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons. And alkylate factors in providing the power and “clean-burning properties” of gas. It's a process that began through the use of sulfuric acid in 1939.

Hydrofluoric acid was introduced as another alkylate in the 1940s, she added, pointing out that nothing has really changed about the process. A little more than 20 years ago, researchers began to wonder if they could use ionic liquid, which is a liquid salt, in the process.

Experts eventually put that idea to the test in Utah. In 2009, Chevron and Honeywell approved a pilot program at the Salt Lake refinery and were thrilled with the results. In 2016, the companies officially announced they would begin an ionic liquids alkylation process based on research conducted at the Salt Lake facility, touting it as a cheaper, safer and more efficient alternative.

Honeywell hailed the process in 2016 as having less of an impact on the environment, too. Stock said dropping hydrofluoric acid from the process brought “an additional safeguard”: Workers don't have to wear special protective gear to operate around the plant like before.

“It marked a milestone in the history of transportation and fuels,” Leonard added. “This is a game-changer for the industry, and it stands as a reference for refiners around the world who want a practical and safe alternative to acid technologies. ... This technology is not just a replacement of the conventional technology; it's an improvement on that existing technology.”

Work continues after Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson joined leadership from Chevron and Honeywell UOP for a ribbon-cutting celebrating the completion of the worldâ??s first commercial ionic liquids alkylation unit at the Chevron Salt Lake Refinery in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Work continues after Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson joined leadership from Chevron and Honeywell UOP for a ribbon-cutting celebrating the completion of the world’s first commercial ionic liquids alkylation unit at the Chevron Salt Lake refinery in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 7, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

More ISOALKY facilities are expected in the future. Chevron owns the technology but partnered with Honeywell to license similar facilities across the world in the coming years, starting with a facility in China, according to company officials.

The Chevron refinery produces gasoline for Utah and some of the surrounding regions. Stock said the refinery doesn't set gas prices, so it's unclear if a cheaper and more efficient process will show up when paying at the pump.

Given the growing concerns over air quality, in recent years Utah leaders and lawmakers have pushed for energy alternatives and cleaner ways to produce fuels.

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Thom Carter, Gov. Spencer Cox’s energy adviser, left, Bryon Stock, general manager of the Chevron Salt Lake Refinery, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, and Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, cut a ribbon to celebrate the completion of the worldâ??s first commercial ionic liquids alkylation unit at the Chevron Salt Lake Refinery in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Thom Carter, Gov. Spencer Cox’s energy adviser, left, Bryon Stock, general manager of the Chevron Salt Lake Refinery, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, and Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, cut a ribbon to celebrate the completion of the world’s first commercial ionic liquids alkylation unit at the Chevron Salt Lake refinery in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 7, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

While Henderson joked she was “intimidated” by the scientific jargon presented Monday, she lauded the new facility and all the work conducted to get it running.

“The vast majority of people in Utah — and I guess, everywhere — we just go and fill up our cars at the pump and have no idea what goes into that, and maybe we don't think about it too much,” she said. “But as a policymaker in the state, and a leader in the state of Utah, and someone who wants to breathe deeply and to make sure all Utahns have clean air and are healthy and have a good lifestyle, I'm really grateful for this technology.”

Henderson added that is excited to see the future of the product, which was mainly developed in Utah. At the same time, Stock said he believes the Salt Lake refinery was chosen to develop the new technology because of the growing common goals between the companies and the Beehive State.

“We consciously chose to make this investment in Utah because Utah has been a fantastic community partner,” he said. “We have a shared interest in improved air quality and cleaner air in the state of Utah. We want to be a part of the solution, and this technology offers us an opportunity to help be a part of that solution.”