Gatekeepers of the refinery: Lab chemists play large role in Dakota Prairie Refining

Holly Dalen, laboratory supervisor at Dakota Prairie Refining, shows how to use a flash point analyzer on Thursday inside the lab on the refinery’s site west of Dickinson.
Holly Dalen, laboratory supervisor at Dakota Prairie Refining, shows how to use a flash point analyzer on Thursday inside the lab on the refinery’s site west of Dickinson.

In a windowless room inside of a non-descript steel building at Dakota Prairie Refining’s sprawling facility west of Dickinson, there are six people whose job is to make certain America’s first greenfield refinery built since 1976 turns Bakken crude oil into diesel fuel.

“It’s a chem nerd’s dream,” laboratory technician and chemist Nicole Haller said of the lab where she works on the 375-acre refinery site.

The small lab crew — led by supervisor Holly Dalen of Dickinson — has some of the most important jobs at the refinery, which is in the final stages of testing before ramping up operations.

They already spend each day testing crude oil, diesel fuel and its sulphur levels, as well as other products to be produced by the refinery. They also run constant tests on city wastewater to be used in the refining process.

The lab crew act as the refinery’s gatekeepers. If a product goes in or comes out of the refinery, the lab has its eyes and instruments on it.

Diesel fuel boils at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in a distillation experiment Thursday inside the Dakota Prairie Refining lab west of Dickinson.
Diesel fuel boils at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in a distillation experiment Thursday inside the Dakota Prairie Refining lab west of Dickinson.

Dakota Prairie Refining began receiving shipments of crude oil in December and its tanks are nearly full, plant manager Dave Podratz said. After a delay of a few months, the refinery could begin processing 20,000 barrels of oil as early as April, he said. WBI Energy, a subsidiary of Bismarck-based MDU Resources Group, developed the refinery with Indianapolis-based Calumet Specialty Products Partners LP. They broke ground in March 2013.

The lab has been preparing for that first day since last June, when Dalen was hired and the lab began coming together.

“It’s a new project,” said Dalen, who previously worked at Nalco Champion in Dickinson and the Dakota Gasification Co. in Beulah. “It’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time. … This doesn’t happen very often, that you get to be at a facility from ground up. It’s really exciting. We get to make it right the first time.”

Podratz said he’s confident the lab crew will be doing the job it was hired to do when the refinery begins producing fuel at its regular rate in the coming weeks.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Podratz said. “When we get the rest of the plant going in the next few weeks, these guys, they’re ready. That’s the one place I don’t have to worry about. All the bugs are worked out.”

Once the refinery begins operating and processing crude oil into diesel fuel and other products, at least one person will be in the lab 24 hours a day to test the oil, water and, most importantly, the diesel fuel produced in the refining process.

Podratz jokingly said that’s the reason why there isn’t a lock on the lab’s door — “because there’s always someone here.”

While the lab crew likes to keep things light and have fun, Dalen said their job is also very serious.

“On this end, if the diesel doesn’t meet spec, they can’t be putting it into the tank, and we can’t be selling it,” Dalen said.

The lab will run daily tests for sulphur levels in diesel samples that come out of the refining process and share those results with the refinery’s operators.

“The process operators will actually make adjustments in the field to their process so that they hit the specifications but don’t go overboard, because that costs us extra money and shortens the life of the process,” Podratz said.

To make sure the lab does its job well, the refinery invested in some of the most updated equipment. While most of that equipment is more expensive than its primitive predecessors, the refinery benefits because it produces automated and accurate results, which are instantly logged into computers. It saves the refinery on staffing, time and even cleaning solvents, Dalen said.

“It’s so much cooler than the stuff I learned on in college,” said Haller, adding the lab still performs manual checks to ensure its findings are accurate and within American Society for Testing and Materials specifications.

Three of the employees — including Dalen and Haller — have called southwest North Dakota home for several years. Haller grew up in the area and graduated from both Dickinson High School and Dickinson State University.

0301 Refinery 12Lab technician David Dickey, who lives in Belfield and left a job at Baker Boy to work at the refinery, said he’s happy to put his degree to good use.

“This has been really fun to grow and utilize some of the training I had in college,” he said.

Fabrice Wognin, a lab technician who is originally from the Ivory Coast but is a North Dakota State University graduate, headed west after working for American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn. While his job at the refinery is different and includes less manual testing than his previous position, Wognin said he’s happy and enjoys working with the lab crew.

“They already warned me, ‘Don’t leave,’” he said with a smile. “I’m a big entertainment in the lab.”

When Dalen arrived at the refinery in June, the lab was a large empty room. Piece by piece and person by person, that has changed.

Now, as the days of testing come to an end and with production set to begin, she’s proud of the group she works with and is anxious to start doing the job they’ve been assembled to do.

“People are excited,” Dalen said. “They want to be here, and it’s exciting to be in that environment.”

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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