Top Gear and Amazing Race in one afternoon? Challenge accepted!

Another year, another flurry of product launches. There is no end to the innovation, boffinry and advancement of technology, but this time round things were a little different. In keeping with the trend, I will also do it a little bit differently this time.

Vivo Energy, or what we know as Shell Kenya, said they have a new oil (another one?), which they wanted some media hacks to publicise.

While I tend to eschew such promos, the new oil appealed to the scientist in me, not because it was new, but because its manufacturing process sounded a little unusual.

In fact, the level of chemistry involved is so high that I have a feeling the Shell staff themselves didn’t know how to adequately explain the concept; they had to resort to analogies (and generally unhelpful audio-visual presentations) to put across their message.

Earlier this year I railed against the often-repeated and heavily clichéd launch formula of throwing an evening cocktail party attended by well-to-do corporate types accompanied by trophy wives who proceed to swill fine liqueur the entire evening while largely ignoring the droning speeches from the podium as reporters sent by editors in desperate need of content try to maximise on an evening of free alcohol and hastily prepared snacks before filing stories that will never see the light of day because the resultant copy is heavy on pointless descriptions but light on pertinent talking points.

The launch party for the new oil followed this same formula, with two key differences: 1. the speeches were not boring, and 2. something else preceded this cocktail party.

The new oil is called Shell Helix Ultra with PurePlus Technology. What they said, though, was that it is 99.5 per cent pure, which begs the question, what exactly have you been selling us all along? I have always thought that purifiying oil involves several filtration levels of increasing stringency, meaning the end product is entirely blemish-free. So what was this about having even purer oil than before?

Did Shell buy new sieves perchance? Actually, no, the explanation is even weirder than that.

AHEAD OF THE FESTIVITIES

Ahead of the evening festivities, the PR folks had prepared what they called an “Adventure Race” or a “Media Challenge”, which was in essence a combination of “Top Gear-esque” shenanigans and Amazing Race-type handicaps that favour the multi-talented.

The first step was shooing us into the unbelievably clean cloakroom of a 5-star hotel to squeeze ourselves into fetching white jumpsuits that immediately made us sweat. The hot weather and thick cotton of the overalls did not go well together.

The next step was to get us into one of four chauffeured cars (because only four of us media types bothered to show up).

The four cars were also all white, incidentally: there was a Landcruiser Prado, into which the only lady journalist entered. There was a Toyota Corolla Fielder car that took the fancy of one of the other guys; a Toyota Wish that I entirely avoided; and a first-generation Subaru Impreza estate car. That is the car I made a beeline for, after which I discovered something else: there was a woman at the wheel. This was going to be quite a day.

The biggest difference between this oil and “other” less pure oils lies in the method of acquisition. The analogy as used by Shell is this: there are several ways of acquiring a cup of clean water; one is to fetch dirty water from a muddy river and filter it. The second is to condense steam or water vapour and collect enough of the condensate to fill a cup.

The result is that you have two cups of clean water, but one will be purer than the other. That all makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, distillation is one of the best ways of purifying solvents or extracting solutes, is it not?

Then again, fractional distillation is the process by which various oils and fuels are extracted from raw creosote (crude oil). So basically, Shell is telling us nothing new; maybe they acquired a new fractionating column with a higher accuracy in temperature differentials… not very different to my little snipe about “buying new sieves”, yes?

No, the process involved here is not distillation.

THE PREMISE

The premise was this. The white cars would shuttle us from point to point, where a number of challenges awaited us. Completing these challenges would contribute to a final tally, which would be key in determining a winner, though the absolute winner would be the first person to return to the hotel from where we were picked up.

The first challenge was simple: leave the hotel grounds at Dusit D2 in Riverside, Nairobi, and head to the nearest Shell fuel forecourt in Kileleshwa. Not a very fair process, I would say, given that our Impreza was flagged off last. We got to the petrol station, where we were told to find our way to the GP Karting grounds at the Carnivore Restaurant on Lang’ata Road.

I could already see where this was going: the white jumpsuit was not just a helmet-less attempt at making me look like The Stig, we also had to engage in Stig-like acts.

This was going to be a total wipe-out, I thought to myself. These journalists don’t stand a chance against the petrolhead. Oh, and although traffic rules apply, try to reach Lang’ata ahead of the rest.

Most automotive oils consist of a substrate called the base oil, into which various ingredients are added, such as detergents for cleaning properties as well as other chemicals that vary the boiling points and viscosity indices. The purity of this base oil is what was in question here, and apparently, Shell found a new way of acquiring it — besides purifying several barrels of crude, that is.

They call the process GTL (gas-to-liquid) and it is something unlike anything I have ever come across.

By means of magic or witchcraft, the people at Shell have found a way of converting gas into liquid, and yes, I have heard about condensation before, but this is not condensation as we know it. It is more like making ice cubes out of the air we breathe and dunking them into a glass of whisky.

The exact details of this process are unclear, or the information is proprietary, I don’t know. But the result is this: natural gas is liquefied into an oil that is 99.5 per cent free of impurities.

RUTHLESS TRAFFIC

In spite of being driven in a Subaru with a big exhaust, I somehow managed to reach Carnivore last… again. Traffic in Nairobi is ruthless, and a single red light could mean the difference between coming first and arriving so late as to find the others already seated and waiting in their go-karts, wondering if I had decided to call the whole thing off and gone home.

They were to rue their thoughts as I took my position at the back of the grid and proceeded to tear up the racetrack over the course of the next 10 minutes. I overtook absolutely everyone, victimising one person twice. Needless to say, I was first.

We were then directed to a shooting range to blast three bottles off the tops of barrels arranged before us. I am not exactly a crackshot, but I came second. Next challenge please….

There are two common ways of changing a gas into liquid, the first being cooling it. The issue with cooling is, if the gas was a gas at room temperature and liquefied at much lower temperatures, it has a tendency to revert to gaseousness when exposed to that same temperature.

The second method is by increasing the saturated vapour pressure to the point where the gas molecules are forced so close together that they form a liquid. This is basically how the cooking gas cylinders are refilled.

However, depressurising the cylinder causes the liquefied butane to “evaporate” again, reverting to its true natural form. This is the concept behind the parlour trick of “boiling” water without having to heat it first: just introduce a vacuum above it, essentially lowering the saturated vapour pressure and allowing the water to vapourise without having to boil it.

Shell’s GTL technology not only liquefies the gas, but also the new liquid (which is now oil) actually stays that way at room temperature and pressure. Clearly, they have found a third way, and it is pure magic.

It was after the shooting challenge that the cheating started. We were meant to leave Carnivore in the order in which we finished the mini-grand prix, so I was to leave first. That did not happen.

The Toyota Wish shot out of the parking lot, closely followed by the Fielder, then the Landcruiser. Again we were last, courtesy of the first incident of blatant disregard of the game rules by contestants.

We followed the pack to Hurlingham, where the first of the Top Gear-style challenges awaited us: take photos with a nearby classic car, upload it to the social media pages of Vivo Energy, then try and sell as many bottles of oil as you can.

This was where I got my first real failure of the day: my phone had discharged its battery so I couldn’t go online. The cameraman, on the other hand, could not immediately download the images from his equipment, so… that was that. I, however, recovered in a smart display of rule-bending: I sold a bottle of oil.

The rules did not specify who to sell the oil to, so I sold the oil to myself!

Upon seeing my chicanery, the rest hopped into their cars and dashed off to the next checkpoint. I left the place last.

There are several advantages to having a pure base oil, Shell asserts. These can be summed up thus: improved fuel economy, lower oil consumption, longer service intervals and smoother running of the engine. The new oil also cleans out the sludge left by inferior oils (are your previous products part of these inferior oils by any chance, Shell? Just asking) and allows for improved extreme-weather performance.

Cold starts should not worry you any more, unless you have a weak battery, which, frankly speaking, is an area not covered by oil.

The next stop was Ngong Road, where we were to take photos with the station manager, upload them again, and again sell some oil. This is where the rest showed the true extent of their diabolical genius. They hogged the instruction sheet and flatly refused to hand it over, so five precious minutes were wasted as I stood around wondering what to do next.

I finally got a copy but by the time I read it through, they were all gone. While the earlier challenge did not specify who to sell oil to, the overall mantra was that whoever returned to the hotel first would be the winner, irrespective of challenge outcomes.

The others realised this and threw me under the bus in fantastic fashion. They waited until I was occupied with my instructions before dashing back to Riverside.

I had been had, hoisted on my own petard. Dang!

What a day. Just one question, Shell: Had I used the new oil in the Subaru, would I have won?

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