Petroleum refining becomes more refined
the 1920s and 1930s, chemistry was key to fueling the automobiles
and mechanized farm equipment that were fast transforming
America from an agrarian to an industrialized nation. Gasoline
was a largely wasted byproduct of kerosene distilled
from crude oil until Henry Ford introduced his Model T. Then
the vehicle population exploded, and with it, demand for gasoline.
that time, fractionation was the sole means of separating
crude oil into its constituent hydrocarbons (compounds
of hydrogen and carbon). The process, still the first
step in refining crude oil, is based on a fundamental
physical characteristic: the boiling points of hydrocarbons
vary with the number of carbon atoms in their molecules.
The more carbon atoms, the higher the temperature at
which the compound boils. Methane, which has one carbon
atom per molecule, boils at a lower temperature than
gasoline, which has 4 to 12 carbon atoms per molecule.
soon discovered they could wring more gasoline from
a barrel of oil with thermal cracking: using heat and
pressure to break down large, heavy hydrocarbons into
the smaller, lighter molecules of gasoline. Clarence
Gerhold, a chemical engineer at the Riverside Laboratory,
developed thermal reforming in 1929, a process that
rearranged gasoline molecules to provide a better-performing
cracking further increased gasoline yield and provided the
first designer fuel: high-octane gasoline. French engineer
and racing enthusiast Eugene Jules Houdry accomplished this
with catalysts, the chemical equivalent of highly skilled
construction workers. In France, he used Fuller's Earth, a
mineral found in clay, to convert lignite, a form of coal,
into oil and then gasoline. In 1931, he moved to the United
States, where he used that approach to make high-octane gasoline
from crude oil.
engineers Warren Lewis and Edwin Gilliland further refined
the process, introducing the fluid bed reactor, which made
the catalysts more efficient. The invention reduced waste
and increased flexibility, provided greater control over the
mix of fuels and chemicals produced by refineries, and was
an economical means of producing more gasoline, the product
in most demand. The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (today
ExxonMobil) was the first to use a fluid bed reactor in its
refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1942.
opens a new chapter in an ancient craft
Georgia chemist Charles Holmes Herty found a way to make quality
paper from pine trees in 1932, he also founded an industry
that brought much-needed jobs to the depression-crippled south.
Herty wrote a new chapter in the ancient craft inspired by
insects who built paper nests while dinosaurs still roamed
the earth. At its root, however, the papermaking process remained
the same: the bonding of cellulose, a polymer whose long chains
support plant cell walls.
approach cuts acrylonitrile production costs
of us don't know acrylonitrile by name, yet we touch
it each day in clothing and carpeting made of acrylic
fibers, in plastic packaging, and in telephone and computer
synthesized in 1893, acrylonitrile did not become important
until the 1930s, when it was used to make acrylic fibers
for textiles and synthetic rubber. Manufacturing the
chemical was an expensive, multistep process, however,
until 1953, when Sohio (today BP Amoco) developed a
new method of making acrylonitrile. The method cut production
costs dramaticallyso dramatically that it is now
used to make virtually all acrylonitrile, which has
become a key raw material for chemical manufacturing
Coal becomes source of acetyl chemicals
by the oil embargoes of the 1970s, the Eastman Chemical
Company opened in 1983 the first U.S. plant to make
acetyl chemicalsbuilding blocks for such consumer
products as plastics, textile fibers, and photographic
filmfrom coal rather than petroleum.
the 1970s, the politically unstable countries
of the Middle Eastfrom which the United
States imported much of its oilcut back
production, triggering shortages. The price of
crude oil shot from $3 to $30 per barrel, and
with it the prices of fuels, chemicals, and everything
else made from oil. Americans fumed as they waited
in line to buy gasoline. Industries of all stripes
scurried to find alternatives to oil.
was the obvious choice. Like oil, it is the remains
of ancient organic material transformed by pressure
and heat into hydrocarbons. Moreover, the United
States is the Saudi Arabia of coal: known reserves
could last hundreds of years and there's more
waiting to be discovered.
The Development of High Performance Carbon
Starting in 1958, scientists at Union Carbide's Parma Technical
Society developed and improved carbon fibers, by weight the
strongest and stiffest material yet produced. Carbon fibers
are used in a variety of applications, including airplanes,
satellites, and sporting goods. In addition, carbon fibers
are used as the leading edge of the space shuttle's wing.
The textile's strength and flexibility has truly revolutionized
the world of materials and future applications may include
entire automobile body panels and earthquake-proof buildings.
Evolution of Durable Press and Flame Retardant Cotton
in the 1950s, researchers at the Southern Regional Research
Center, a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in New Orleans,
began to modify cotton chemically to make it wrinkle resistant
and flame retardant. Cotton is a natural seed fiber that has
long been used for clothing and household goods. But because
it wrinkles easily it had begun to lose market share to synthetic
fabrics. The scientists at the SRRC helped reverse this trend
by developing processes and additives that made cotton wrinkle
resistant. At the same time, research into flame resistance
succeeded in yielding cotton that did not flare up when held
to a flame. (Read more).