Invest for long-term success

The quality of transport infrastructure plays a critical role in the success of a town, city, region or country. And the UK government has made improving transport a key priority, not only to increase our competitiveness, but also to ensure that wealth and opportunity are spread across the country to build an economy that works for everyone.

In setting out a vision for the future in the Transport Investment Strategy, the government is committed to getting the best value out of the road network. This will include a rigorous business case appraisal of candidate projects and developing, as well as helping to facilitate, funding and investment mechanisms to deliver the schemes.

Governments have always needed to focus on delivering roads that meet the needs of users, but a greater drive towards investment programmes that help create a balanced economy lies at the heart of the Strategy. Its key aim is to drive growth in towns and cities outside the capital. To achieve this, we can expect to see different types of institutional decision-making continue to take shape.

Already in May 2017, we saw elected mayors take up office at six combined authority areas, which together account for a total population of 9.5 million people - almost 20% of the population in England. As leaders of these combined authorities, the Mayors have greater freedoms and powers to determine long-term transport policy. This should signal closer collaboration between towns and cities, and serve as a catalyst for joined-up thinking and approaches to road investment.

Indeed, the signs are positive. Even before the Transport Investment Strategy was announced, several major local authorities and combined authorities had identified roads as their priority.

In Manchester, a £100m budget was committed by the city council in January 2017 to resurface key roads. The programme aims to get roads to a good standard and keep them there, and help support the city's future growth.

Neighbouring Liverpool has also long recognised highways infrastructure as a contributor to economic viability. By accounting for the gross replacement cost of its highways assets on its balance sheet - £6.5bn in its 2014 Highway Asset Management Plan – the council has used the principles of asset management and valuation to identify the true value of the network, which in turn contributes towards prioritising work and setting budgets.

If we fast forward to 2017, the Liverpool City Region combined authority has an ambitious ‘Transport Plan for Growth’ programme in play. This provides a single strategic framework and delivery plan for transport in a wider context. It focuses on the role of transport in achieving strong and sustainable economic growth by connecting people and businesses to opportunities, reducing congestion and increasing economic productivity. It’s a strong blueprint, no doubt informed by accounting for its highways assets on the balance sheet; for more than numbers they can drive improvement, and provide an effective way to measure return on investment (ROI).

The latter has always been a critical dimension to highways’ infrastructure programmes, but arguably even more so today. City leaders face a myriad of challenges while needing to remain within the tax payers’ budget: increased traffic, a greater number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads and extreme weather conditions. This is where specialists like Shell Bitumen can partner with councils and contractors to deliver solutions, which are adapted to present and future needs. And in this challenging environment, we believe that polymer-modified bitumens (PMBs) will have an increased role to play in keeping Britain moving.  Shell Bitumen developed the world’s first in 1967. They are conventional bitumens which are modified with carefully chosen polymers to improve the properties of the asphalt mixture. PMBs are particularly effective in helping to improve the resistance to deformation, and provide better adhesion between bitumen and aggregate than conventional bitumen. These are factors that are likely to be important following the recent publication of the Value for Money framework by the Department for Transport. Tone down the Cariphalte sales pitch and good to go.

Published on 20 July 2017, the transport appraisal provides transport analysts with a comprehensive, consistent and robust approach for assessing the costs and impacts of transport interventions. The aim of the assessment is to help decision makers judge whether the expected costs of a proposal are justified by its expected benefits to the UK public, including both positive and negative impacts of the proposal on the economy, society, environment, and public accounts. It’s a welcome update, which builds on a framework that is considered to be among the most developed in the world, and it underlines the critical value that roads must play in securing our growth and prosperity.

Dave Foster is UK Business Manager at Shell Bitumen.

The future of bitumen

Bitumen is a black viscous mixture of hydrocarbons, obtained as the residue from petroleum distillation and is one of the most widely used construction materials. Its first recorded use was by the Sumerians in 3000 BC as a waterproofing and bonding agent in a water tank at Mohenjo Daro in the Indus Valley. Today, approximately 80 per cent of the global bitumen market is used in asphalt for road construction and maintenance; the rest goes into roofing and industrial applications, such as waterproofing.

Bitumen is a complex material. The precise chemical composition varies according to the source of the crude oil from which bitumen originates, and the chemical modification induced during the manufacturing process. There are over 2500 different sources of crude oils worldwide, but only approximately 300 sources can be used to produce bitumen.

Currently, more than 100 million tonnes of bitumen are consumed every year. And volumes are expected to grow significantly by 2020, driven by increased road construction activities in the fast-growing markets of India and China, as well as a resurgence of road maintenance in Europe and the US.

Professor John Read - General Manager Technology for Shell Specialities (Bitumen and Sulphur), takes up the story, “However, set against increased demand there are significant supply issues within the oil markets which have also been extremely volatile in the past two years. With unpredictable geopolitical tensions, they are likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. These factors have both disrupted crude supply and increased the competition for crude in the recent past.”

“In parallel with these developments, refining is ever more competitive and is evolving to meet changing energy needs, for example new low sulphur shipping fuel specification changes in 2020 are stimulating much investments in conversion units which will see more residues upgraded into distillates (diesel, jet) or gasoline i.e. molecules that are worth considerably more to refineries than Fuel Oil, Bitumen, residue. At the same time, trade flows have shifted in line with changes in supply and demand, notably eastwards, making China and SE Asia the epicentres of new highly complex refinery (mega refineries) growth. The struggle with competiveness has seen more than 30 European bitumen producing refineries ceasing production in the last 10 years; Shell Bitumen estimate this to be between 8-9 million tonnes, as a result bitumen must travel longer distances, and will do so even more in the future to meet growing demands. Changes to the fuel oil pool could also help to replace some of production lost within the last 10 years, but not all residues can be made into bitumen, nor is it always in the right place.”

“To address these issues while retaining the flexibility to meet increased bitumen demand, there is a greater requirement for logistics and infrastructure to help develop more reliable supply, and technological innovation to create more resilient bitumens, which meet the needs of the future. Shell is investing simultaneously in both areas.”

“Firstly, Shell Bitumen has underlined its commitment to producing bitumen. To enable this, we have decided that it is not feasible to do that in all locations. Therefore, we have centred on ten of the group’s refinery network where we will produce bitumen: covering Europe, SE Asia, South Africa, South America and the United States. Secondly, we are developing new ways to make bitumen using molecular engineering.”

Current developments:
Currently, Shell Bitumen are developing new ways of using atomic force microscopy to see chemical structures at the molecular level within the bitumen. From this information and other analytical techniques, they can model the structures.

John continues, “For example, when we take the asphaltene compounds of bitumen and rotate them in three dimensions, we can now see it’s a structure made up of parallel plates. Those parallel plates are all joined by carbonal chains. These chains control ductility – how stretchable or brittle your bitumen is. The more entanglement of the carbonal chains, the more brittle your bitumen is. If we can control and break the carbonal chains, and only leave enough attached so that we still have a structure, the plates can now slide over each other, allowing us to make a ductile bitumen from what was a brittle bitumen. It’s something we could never do before.”

Another focus:
Another focus for the Shell Bitumen R&D team lies in reducing the most commonly identified deficiencies to be found in bitumen. They have identified thirteen, which have impacts ranging from poor adhesion and poor ductility through to unpleasant smell. Currently, they can rectify more than half of these thanks to their molecular engineering. This has led to a range of specialist bitumen products coming onto the market. Shell Bitufresh. Introduced in 2007, removes smell from the bitumen, rather than simply masking it. This is done by chemically converting the mercaptans - the smell generating compounds within the bitumen - by attaching really, heavy molecules from the Bitufresh to them. This makes the mercaptans incredibly heavy and dense. As a result, they sink to the bottom of the bitumen, preventing their release.

John, added, “Over the next 2-3 years, we expect to remedy ten of the 13 bitumen make-up deficiencies. Our ambition is to make these new bitumen make-up technologies available for post-processing residue at depots rather than at refineries, which will reduce costs and decrease supply bottlenecks. This is a good example of innovation and commercialisation, whose thanks we owe to the work of our scientists. The future of bitumen is in good hands.”

Shell BITUMEN and DHL set a new standard in transport safety

Shell Bitumen has retrofitted an innovative collision avoidance technology into its HGV fleet to improve transport safety with the support of DHL, its long-term transport and logistics partner.

“The team decided to look into available aftermarket technology, which is becoming widely available for the car market. Although these systems had not been used on HGVs, we were determined to find a solution that would provide the alert functions to help improve driver reaction times and attentiveness,” said John Doyle, Distribution Manager at Shell Bitumen.

Thirty-six HGV ‘tractors’ within the Shell Bitumen fleet are being retrofitted with Mobileye, a technology that will visually and audibly warn Shell Bitumen drivers in time to make necessary corrections to avoid potential collisions or lessen the damage.

Shell Bitumen had run two pilot initiatives with DHL, which operates its fleet - first on a Scania tractor, followed by a Volvo tractor, over eight weeks. These were carried out by instructors on its driver training trucks to put the technology through its paces.

The installation took place across all older tractors, which do not feature the latest generation AEBS (Automatic Electronic Braking Systems). All new tractors coming into the fleet have AEBS as standard, which negates the need for the collision avoidance technology.

In November 2016, the first of the 36 tractors were retrofitted with this collision avoidance technology. In June 2017, the final Shell Bitumen tractor will be fitted with the technology.

“All through the programme and installation across the fleet we have had very positive feedback from our drivers, which has helped us to fine tune the system. And while technology can never be a complete solution nor a substitute for AEBS, it is providing a major step forward in our continuous journey in road transport safety,” added John.

Phil Roe, Managing Director, Transport, Engineering & Manufacturing, Energy & Chemicals, DHL Supply Chain added: “The Shell / DHL fleet covers in excess of 6 million kilometres per year and, with UK roads becoming inceasingly congested, there are more and more potential distractions. We are always looking for innovative ways to make every journey as safe as possible for our drivers, other vehicles and vulnerable road users. Mobileye is another step in the right direction on our joint safety journey.”

Shell Bitumen operates a large fleet of tractors through DHL to distribute bitumen throughout the UK. At any one time, Shell Bitumen has a flexible fleet of up to 75 HGVs on the UK road network.

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