Kerosene Lamps to Airplanes
fuels manufacturing industry began in the mid-19th century with the
separation of naturally occurring petroleum into three main fractions,
naphtha, kerosene, and heavy oil, according to their boiling ranges.
From the 1860s up to 1910, demand was primarily for kerosene for lamps.
To make the lamps burn smoothly, it was important to separate all
the low boiling naphtha fraction from the kerosene. Naphtha in the
kerosene made the lamp sputter, or, at worst, explode. Early fuels
manufacturing technology was simply a physical separation by distillation,
with no chemical changes in the petroleum fractions. The first chemical
reactions were introduced to control odor and color. For example,
sulfur compounds, which have very strong odors, were removed by reaction
with strongly basic compounds. This chemical processing took place
only on a very small portion of the product streams that went through
1910 to 1930 technological developments in other industries changed
demands for various fuel products. Use of electric lighting caused
slower growth in the market for kerosene, and the change in shipping
from sail to steam and diesel engines (in ships and trains), plus
the need for fuel to generate electricity, developed a market for
the heavier, higher boiling fuel oils. However, the change that
had the greatest impact on the fuels industry was the development
of the gasoline engine and its application in both automobiles and
airplanes. The demand for gasoline, which was made from the naphtha
fraction, was much greater than the markets for other higher boiling
liquid petroleum fractions.
More and Better Gasoline
builders had found that gasolines varied in their performance depending
on the type of crude oil used for distillation. Better gasolines
allowed engines to run with more power at a higher speed without
damaging the engine. The poorer gasolines, in comparison, caused
an engine to make a "pinging" or "knocking"
noise and to run less smoothly. The "antiknock" quality
of gasoline was expressed as an "octane" number on a numerical
scale of pure chemical compounds as proposed in 1926 by Graham Edgar
of the Ethyl Corporation. We now know that higher octane gasoline
burns in a way that pushes the piston down smoothly during the power
stroke. The lower octane gasoline burns too rapidly, and the sudden
pressure rise makes the knock or ping in the engine cylinder, which
can harm the engine.
1919, Charles F. Kettering and Thomas Midgley, Jr., of General Motors'
Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, had begun work on controlling
engine knock. In 1921 they reported that a mixture of tetraethyl
lead and gasoline eliminated knocking and performed like a higher-octane
gasoline. Upon development of efficient tetraethyl lead (TEL) synthesis
methods a few years later, refiners could provide a constant octane
gasoline product from a variety of naphthas. In the late 1960s,
as gasoline consumption grew, careful analytical chemistry showed
that the lead additives contributed to the spread of the heavy metal
into the roadside environment. The Environmental Protection Agency
of the U. S. government and the fuel manufacturers agreed to phase
out the use of the lead additives. The technology used today to
produce plentiful, high octane, unleaded gasoline started with technical
innovations introduced in the 1920s and 30s.
to 1925, the higher boiling heavy-oil molecules were chemically
changed to smaller naphtha molecules by heating to decompose them
using a process called thermal cracking. Between 1925 and 1935,
Eugene Jules Houdry and his co-workers demonstrated that a catalytic
cracking process provided a greater yield of gasoline. In addition,
the cracked naphthas were higher in octane than only-distilled naphtha.
The first full-scale commercial fixed-bed catalytic cracking unit
began production in 1937. It changed the industry.
of Conversion Reactors
change to production of fuels by chemical conversion rather than
distillation required that the refineries install expensive, large
capacity chemical reactors. In addition, the Houdry Process Corporation
was charging large licensing fees for the use of its technology.
Oil companies not yet committed to install the Houdry process decided
to explore other process methods that might overcome some of the
known problems of the fixed bed reactors. This group of companies,
called Catalytic Research Associates, included Standard Oil Company
of New Jersey (now Exxon Corporation), M.W. Kellogg Company, Standard
Oil Company of Indiana (now Amoco Corporation), Anglo-Iranian Oil
Company (now British Petroleum, Ltd., p.l.c.), Royal Dutch/Shell,
Texaco, and Universal Oil Products (now UOP). The companies shared
the results of process and catalyst testing they had conducted since
the late 1920s. The large scale developments of this group were
carried out at the Baton Rouge laboratories of Standard Oil Company
of New Jersey.