A Peak Behind the Soap: Oil Refining with Richard Jones

Richard Jones, our Bulk Manufacturing Supervisor, was recently named Dr. Bronner’s Employee of the Quarter—along with our Quality Assurance Manager Liz Schwartz—for their efforts in scaling up our in-house bar soap base manufacturing.

From Petroleum to Palm

You wouldn’t expect a job recommendation to come from your therapist, but in a bit of cosmic serendipity, that’s exactly how our Bulk Manufacturing Supervisor Richard Jones found his ideal career at Dr. Bronner’s.

When his therapist suggested that he should look into working at Dr. Bronner’s, Richard was in something of a deep funk. For years he had worked in the high-stakes, high pressure world of petroleum refining. Originally from Wales, Richard was making a good living working on oil platforms in the North Sea, off the coast of Scotland. His work meant that he often had time off for surfing adventures, and a trip to visit his friends in Leucadia, California led him to falling in love.

Richard eventually married his California sweetheart, and the couple had two children. After years of commuting back and forth between his new family home in California and his job in the North Sea, Richard decided to find work in SoCal. At first he followed his passion for the ocean and began teach surfing at a surf school in San Diego. This was a great break from the demands of petroleum refining, but it wasn’t something that would provide his family with enough financial support in the long term.

So he went back to the world of fossil fuels and landed a job at a petroleum refinery that was based in the Los Angeles area. Though this was a much shorter commute for him than the North Sea, he found that he was still dissatisfied. He realized that it was maybe time to quit the fossil fuels industry altogether and devote himself to something closer to his heart.

This was when his therapist stepped in with a timely question: had he ever heard of Dr. Bronner’s? It turns out that he hadn’t, so his therapist filled him on the mission-driven nature of the enterprise—plus she knew someone working there who seemed to love it. Richard looked it up, and saw that the company had listed an opening for someone with expertise in “oil refining.” This wouldn’t be refining fossil fuels—instead it was a job working to refine vegetable oils that would be used in soapmaking. He didn’t know the first thing about making soap, but he was an expert in oil refining, so he decided to apply for the job. The rest, as they say, is history.

A Commitment to Constant Improvement

Richard dove into his new role at Dr. Bronner’s with zeal. He had arrived at a crucial moment: after years of relying on a refinery in the Netherlands to bleach, deodorize, and refine the main ingredients in our soaps—coconut oil, palm oil, olive oil—the company was now bringing this complex technical process in-house to its manufacturing plant in Vista, California. The idea was to save costs and reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted from having to ship all the raw oils first to the Netherlands, and then ship the refined oils to Vista for making soap. Plus, by doing everything in-house, Dr. Bronner’s would be able to ensure that the refining would be done in the most efficient, ecological way possible.

Bulk Manufacturing Supervisor Richard Jones in his element

The fair trade and organic oils that we source from our sister projects in Ghana, Sri Lanka, Palestine, and Samoa are of the highest quality—but some of the very same features that make these oils excellent for culinary use are not desirable in soapmaking. Their wonderful scents, deep colors, and extra minerals all have to be stripped away to leave a pure oil that is ready to be saponified.

As the company had just installed a whole zone of new machinery—a complex, custom-built maze of pipes, vacuums, heaters, and filters—Richard’s first task was to get the whole operation working smoothly.

Walking through Department 105 (as Richard’s part of the plant is known) is like stepping into a modern industrial wonderland! The oils that are delivered to the plant are first kept in a gleaming Tank Farm right outside the main building—these are raw olive oil from Canaan Fair Trade in Palestine, raw palm oil from Serendipalm in Ghana, and raw Coconut Oil from SerendiCoco Samoa.

Oils from the Tank Farm enter the refinery through an inlet filter and citric acid is injected into the oils. This mixture then passes through a conditioning reactor and into a Slurry Tank, where clay is injected into the mixture. This “slurry”—a mix of oil, clay, and citric acid—is pumped though a heater to reach a temperature of 230°F and then pumped into a vacuum bleacher. For thirty minutes, an agitator mixes the oil slurry inside the vacuum bleacher to make sure that the clay and citric acid remove as many pigments and impurities as possible. After this, the slurry is run through a second filter—an Adsorbent Filter which uses bleaching earths to further strip out color compounds and impurities.

The oil has now been bleached, but must still be deodorized. The bleached oil is heated again to between 430°F and 500°F in a vacuum. Hot oil enters the deodorizer and flows through heat bleaching trays where it stays for between 45 and 60 minutes, after which it finally becomes a pale yellow oil free of any noticeable odors.

The genius of Richard’s team is how they constantly work to improve the effectiveness of the process, allowing Dr. Bronner’s to obtain a high percentage of refined oils with minimal loss and waste. They also work diligently to ensure that the whole operation is as sustainable as possible, reducing the amount of energy used and waste produced—in line with our Cosmic Principle: “Treat the Earth like home!” Richard feels fortunate to have made the switch from an industry that is most directly responsible for climate change, to a company whose commitment to Regenerative Organic agriculture and renewable energy is putting it on a path to being carbon negative—sequestering more carbon than it produces.

Richard’s team also turns these oils into base for our bar soaps through a whole other set of machines—but we’ll save the details of that process for another post!

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