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The Wizard of Octane:
Eugène Houdry

His miraculous catalyst turned nearly worthless sludge into precious high-octane gasoline and helped the Allies win World War II

TIM PALUCKA / Invention & Technology v.20, n.3, Winter 2005 1oct04

 

the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then one can assert with equal justice that the Battle of Britain was won at the Stevens Hotel, in Chicago, on November 18, 1938. It was there, at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, that Arthur E. Pew, vice president and head of research of the Sun Oil Company, described his company's extraordinary new catalytic refining process. Using it, he said, Sun was turning what was normally considered a waste product into gasoline—and not just ordinary gasoline, but a high-octane product that could fuel the era's most advanced airplanes.

That process would make a crucial difference in mid-1940, when the Royal Air Force started filling its Spitfires and Hurricanes with 100-octane gasoline imported from the United States instead of the 87 octane it had formerly used. Luftwaffe pilots couldn't believe they were facing the same planes they had fought successfully over France a few months before. The planes were the same, but the fuel wasn't. In his 1943 book The Amazing Petroleum Industry, V. A. Kalichevsky of the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company explained what high-octane gasoline meant to Britain: "It is an established fact that a difference of only 13 points in octane number made possible the defeat of the Luftwaffe by the R.A.F. in the fall of 1940. This difference, slight as it seems, is sufficient to give a plane the vital `edge' in altitude, rate of climb and maneuverability that spells the difference between defeat and victory."

A reporter for Fortune magazine was present that day in 1938 when Pew rose to deliver his paper. Normally, he wrote, the audience thinned out considerably by the time the technical papers were presented at the end of the meeting, but that day all the seats were taken. Ever since a Sun chemist named Eugène Houdry had patented his catalytic refining method in 1937, it had been well known in the industry that Sun was onto something major. Now everyone wanted to find out how it was working in practice.

Pew, who was six feet tall, "big and quick and abrupt, given to shooting his words out in perfunctory outbursts" (said the reporter), made a startling announcement. A unit at the company's plant in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, was refining 15,000 barrels of petroleum feedstock a day to produce gasoline with octane numbers between 77 and 81. This was scarcely credible: At the time, most refineries turned out 60-octane gasoline, which they boosted to 72 or so by adding tetraethyl lead.

Even more amazing, the Marcus Hook plant started not with high-grade crude oil but with the residuum fraction of crude, the thick oils known as "heavy bottoms" that were left over from previous distillations. Before this, the best anyone could do with the residuum was convert it into fuel oil, with little profit. By turning the residuum into gasoline, Sun had increased its gasoline yield from crude from the previous standard of 25 percent to as high as 50 percent. "Arthur Pew had dropped a bombshell," the reporter wrote. "If what he had said about the Houdry process proved out, then the status quo of the refinery business, in which close to $2,000,000,000 was invested, was due to be shot to hell."

When petroleum is first extracted from the ground, it isn't good for much. Crude oil is a mixture of thousands of hydrocarbons varying greatly in molecular weight, with assorted impurities, notably sulfur-containing compounds, thrown in. Some of these hydrocarbons are straight-chain, with the carbons attached in a row, while others are branched, with carbons splitting off at one or more junction points, like a tree branch. Still others are cyclic, forming rings. Crude oils come in various quality grades depending on the geological conditions of the well, from light-colored, thin crudes to dark, thick ones.

Whatever its origin, crude oil contains everything from gaseous carbon compounds with 1 to 4 carbon atoms (methane through butane), collectively known as natural gas, to viscous, tarry asphalts and other "residuals" containing more than 35 carbons. In between these extremes are a series of progressively heavier components, known as "fractions," each one a mixture of hydrocarbons within a certain approximate weight range: gasoline, with 5 through 12 carbons; kerosene and fuel oil, with 11 to 16; lubricants, with 17 to 22; and paraffin waxes, with 23 to 34. Since a given empirical formula, such as pentane (CSH12), can exist in many different structures, these components are mixtures of hundreds or thousands of separate compounds—more than 500 for gasoline, and a much larger number for the others.

In general, lighter compounds are more volatile, meaning that they boil at lower temperatures than heavier ones. According to one definition used by refiners (there is no single, universally accepted standard), gasoline has a boiling point of 86 to 428 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by kerosene (356 to 752 degrees), lubricants (above 662 degrees), and waxes and asphalts (which have even higher boiling points). This provides a simple way to separate the fractions by distillation at increasing temperatures. Distillation is easy and doesn't require a lot of equipment (it was practiced in the Caspian region as early as 1735), but it can only get out of the crude what's already in it—whatever fractions happen to be present, in more or less their existing proportions, rather than the fractions that the refiner wants most.

 

BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF THE AUTOMOBILE, THIS WASN'T a problem. The fraction of greatest value was kerosene, which was widely used in lamps and is naturally abundant in crude oil. Around 1900 a typical sample of crude oil yielded 60 percent kerosene, with the remainder divided fairly evenly among fuel oil, gasoline, and other products. Natural gas was considered a nuisance and was burned off at the well. Gasoline, which was too volatile for use in lamps, was often dumped into a nearby river, though it did have a small market as a solvent (in dry cleaning, for example) and in stoves and a few other uses. But that all changed in a hurry. By 1910, a little more than a year after Henry Ford's Model T was introduced, 500,000 automobiles were on the road, and as sales continued to skyrocket, so did gasoline demand, rising 80 percent from 1911 to 1912 alone. Refiners were desperate for ways to get more gasoline from a barrel of crude.

Besides quantity, another concern was quality, the fuel's suitability for use in automobiles. In a gasoline engine's cylinder, a piston compresses a mixture of fuel vapors and air, which is then ignited by a spark from a spark plug. The resulting explosion pushes the piston back out again, sending power through the drive train. With low-octane fuels, however, the compression alone is enough to ignite some of the vapors prematurely. This means that there are two explosions per stroke, one by compression and one by spark ignition, and this double explosion, known as knocking, greatly interferes with the engine's workings. The more powerful the engine, the greater the compression and thus the greater the problem with premature ignition.

The ability of a fuel to resist knocking is expressed in its octane number. Highly branched isooctane, the least knock-prone of the octanes, is assigned a value of 100, and straight chain n-heptane, which knocks in virtually any engine, is assigned a value of O. A gasoline with the knocking characteristics of 70 percent isooctane and 30 percent n-heptane is assigned an octane number of 70, and so on. Fuels that provide even more power than pure isooctane can have octane numbers higher than 100.

One promising way to improve both yield and octane number was cracking, which had been in use since the 1870s to boost kerosene production. In this process, crude oil was heated at high pressure and temperature to "crack" long-chain molecules into smaller ones. The trick was to choose the temperature and pressure conditions that would yield the largest amount of the fraction you were looking for. Around 1909 William Burton, general manager of manufacturing for Standard Oil of Indiana, and Robert E. Humphreys, the chemist in charge of the company's main research lab, started looking for a way to use cracking to boost gasoline yield. Higher-ups at the Standard Oil trust were not interested, but when that trust was broken into smaller pieces in 1911, the new management at Standard of Indiana was much more receptive.

Over the next two years, Burton and Humphreys developed a process in which crude was heated to 800 degrees at a pressure of 75 pounds per square inch. (Later versions would use temperatures as high as 1,200 degrees and pressures as high as 3,000 psi.) Not the least of their problems was designing and obtaining vessels that could stand up to these conditions, which had never before been employed in the refining industry. They increased the heat and pressure slowly and with great trepidation, constantly fearing a catastrophic explosion if they went too high. One source of concern was that vessels had to be riveted together because welding was not yet in common use.

Standard of Indiana patented the Burton-Humphreys process in 1913 and put it to work in the company's refineries, doubling gasoline yields to 25 percent of each barrel of crude with-in a few years. Other refiners either licensed the process from Standard or came up with their own versions of cracking, and the latter group found ample room for improvement. Burton and Humphreys were chemists, not chemical engineers, and they had not designed their process with mass production in mind. For example, it was performed in batches rather than as a continuous flow, which is a lot more efficient. By the end of the 1920s, after a series of advances, typical gasoline yields were higher than 40 percent. The quality of the gasoline was also improved, though not as much as the quantity. But with the addition of tetraethyl lead (TEL), whose antiknocking properties were discovered in 1921, it was good enough for most cars.

Thermal cracking, as it was called, remained the state of the art for more than 20 years. Equally important, it established the importance of research as a driving force in the growth of the petroleum industry. When Burton and Humphreys began their investigations, according to one historian, "there were probably ... not more than twenty well-trained chemists working in the entire petroleum industry." After the success of their innovation, every oil company knew it needed a research department.

The adoption of thermal cracking bought some time for the gasoline industry and helped ease immediate fears of a shortage, but it did not banish them completely. Informed people knew that as cars continued getting bigger, more powerful, and more numerous, supplying their ravenous collective appetite would grow ever harder. And as the years went by, two men, one a producer of gasoline in America and one a consumer in Europe, would take the largest step yet toward addressing this problem.

Though both were born into wealth, Eugène Houdry and Arthur Pew followed different paths to the oil industry. Houdry was born in 1892 in Dumont, France. His father owned a successful structural-steel business, Houdry et Fils, which Eugène was supposed to take over someday. Arthur E. Pew, Jr., born in 1899, was the grandson of Joseph Newton Pew of Philadelphia, who had teamed with Edward Octavius Emerson to form an oil-drilling enterprise in 1886. This was incorporated in 1890 as the Sun Oil Company, with headquarters in Philadelphia. Joseph Pew bought out his partner in 1899, and from then on, the company was a Pew family business.

While Arthur Pew found a comfortable and successful niche as head of research for Sun and remained there throughout his career, Houdry took a more circuitous route to the industry. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers at Châlons-sur-Marne, where he was a star halfback and captain of the soccer team, leading it to the French collegiate championship. In 1911, after college, he joined his father in the steelmaking business. His career was interrupted by World War I, during which he served in the French tank corps and was wounded in the Battle of Juvincourt in 1917, earning the Croix de Guerre. When the war ended, he married and resumed his work in steelmaking, but his love of Grand Prix racing would soon cause him to switch fields.

As a young man Houdry had visited the United States to attend the Indianapolis 500, and he had a Bugatti racecar that he enjoyed driving in his free time. Like everyone involved in automobile racing in the early 1920s, he was acutely aware of the possibility that the sport could vanish before long, for petroleum experts were predicting that the world's gasoline supply might be exhausted within a decade. The problem was particularly vexing in France, which had no oil reserves (not even, at this point, in its African colonies) and was importing high-sulfur crude from Iraq at great cost.

Then in 1922 a fellow racecar driver showed Houdry a small bottle of gasoline he said had been made from lignite, the low-grade brown coal that was plentiful in France. Houdry arranged to meet the man responsible for it, a pharmacist in Nice named E. A. Prudhomme. Prudhomme showed him a tiny tabletop apparatus that heated lignite and passed steam through it to produce water gas, which is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The water gas then flowed through a catalyst bed madeof nickel and cobalt to produce a few drops of gasoline per hour. It was the first encounter with catalysts for the man who years later would come to be called Mr. Catalysis.

Despite the meagerness of this initial demonstration and ad-vice from experts that the process would never work on an industrial level, Houdry persuaded a group of 600 Frenchmen to join him in the challenge. The Société Anonyme Française pour la Fabrication d'Essences et Pétroles was incorporated in 1923, with Houdry as president. Prudhomme was given a lab-oratory and three chemists in Beauchamp to carry on research.

Top: Catalytic-cracking units are replaced after removal for cleaning. Below: Catalyst pellets like those used at Marcus Hook. Both pictures are from the 1950's

 

By this time a number of catalytic processes were being used in industry. An iron oxide catalyst developed by Fritz Haber in Germany in 1909 was used commercially to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to make fertilizer. Vegetable oils were hydrogenated with a catalyst to make solid shortening. In 1912 Almer McAfee of Gulf Oil Corporation used an aluminum chloride catalyst to crack the high-boiling fraction of petroleum into gasoline, but the high cost of aluminum chloride and the difficulty of reusing it made the process uneconomical.

In all these instances, the key point was that the catalyst remained unchanged when the reaction was over. It was not consumed, like a normal chemical reactant, but it greatly in-creased the rate of reaction of the other components. Later research showed that a catalyst provides a surface to which molecules can attach themselves loosely, react together, and then detach, leaving the surface free to serve the same function for another pair of reactants. Without a catalyst, the reactants would have to encounter each other by chance, and with the proper geometry, on their random paths through a re-action vessel.

In theory, one batch of catalyst can be used forever, but this does not hold true in practice. In all catalytic processes, the catalyst eventually loses its ability to promote the reaction. The cause is "poisoning" of the catalyst's active surface by some-thing that binds tightly and does not let go, thus preventing the reactants from attaching. The poison in Prudhomme's process was initially thought to be sulfur, which is present, in varying degrees, as an unwanted component of every sample of coal or petroleum. But even when sulfur was removed from the gas stream before it reached the catalyst, poisoning still occurred, and no one could find a way to prevent it. This was a major roadblock because, as Houdry later wrote, "catalytic research men were absolutely certain that catalysts could not be regenerated."

 

HOUDRY DID NOT LIKE TO BE TOLD THAT SOMETHING could not be done. The work ethic that would later cause him to be called the "round-the-clock researcher" kicked in. For three months he lived in the laboratory and toiled virtually nonstop, trying every way he could think of to regenerate his catalyst. The culprit turned out to be plain old carbon, and Houdry eventually succeeded in burning it off by forcing additional air through the catalyst and heating it to convert the carbon into carbon dioxide. By regenerating his catalyst, Houdry had proved the research men wrong.

More problems lay ahead. A few years after he met Houdry, Prudhomme was charged with fraudulent practices when he was caught adding gasoline to coal tar in some work he was doing for a Belgian concern. Prudhomme was fired from Houdry's firm, but his lignite process remained valid. In 1929, with the promise of subsidies from France's Office Nationale des Combustibles Liquides and the backing of the Houdry family's fortune, Houdry's company built a production plant at St. Julien de Peyrolas to make gasoline from lignite. Although the plant succeeded in producing gasoline, it was a financial disaster. The government withdrew all further funding, and Houdry, far from becoming the national hero he had hoped to be, was forced to leave France to look for support. "I shall be back," he promised.

Lignite as a source of gasoline was dead, but Houdry was already working on another possibility. As early as 1926 he had conceived of the idea of using catalysis on crude oil instead of lignite. The key experiment took place in 1927. Houdry had been employing the Edisonian method, trying hundreds of compounds as potential catalysts. As he told the Fortune reporter in 1938, one morning at three o'clock he went to check on his catalyst in the laboratory and saw a clear liquid with the "good smell" of gasoline. The catalyst he was using was an alumina-silicate compound, a clay. He spent the day making several gallons of gasoline, then took his Bugatti out on the road near Versailles, where he reached speeds of 90 miles per hour. "The engine felt as though it were running in absorbent cotton," Houdry said, meaning that it did not knock or stall, an indicator that the gasoline had a high octane number.

This observation was crucial, because increasing the octane number of gasoline had become a major concern as the demand for more powerful engines grew. TEL helped to some extent, but there was a limit to how much of it could be added with-out leaving deposits on a car's pistons and cylinders. Houdry's ride in his Bugatti that day in 1927 showed that he could produce the necessary octane level without additives and in quantities that made mass production look promising. He just needed the financial backing to make it happen.

In 1929, his lignite venture having collapsed, Houdry shopped his ideas around to the world's petroleum companies. He approached several European firms but found little interest, especially after the stock market crash in October. Then in 1930 Harold Sheets of Vacuum Oil Company, in New Jersey, who was in charge of the company's international operations, visited Houdry in France. On the advice of one of his company's chemists, Sheets offered Houdry a trial run at the Vacuum Oil refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey. The deal was that if Houdry could duplicate the results of his laboratory apparatus over a 15-day period, Vacuum Oil would finance development of the process on an industrial scale. Although he arrived in the United States in 1930 speaking very little English, Houdry succeeded in meeting Sheets's challenge. The Houdry Process Corporation began with funding of $3.3 million, with Vacuum Oil a one-third partner and Houdry and his French investors holding two-thirds.

The Great Depression and the merger of Vacuum Oil with Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony) in 1931 provided another setback. Houdry's process was lost in the tumult of the merger, and the new management was not as enthusiastic about catalysis as the Vacuum people had been. Socony retained Vacuum's one-third share but declined to invest any additional money, and in 1933 Houdry was forced to look for a new backer. The outlook wasn't good, because unlike thermal cracking, which came along when demand for gasoline was booming, Houdry's innovation would have to be sold when economic activity was stagnant worldwide.

Though neither Houdry nor Pew knew it at the time, it was almost inevitable that the two would meet and strike a deal. Pew's Sun Oil Company was the only one in the United States that had resisted adding TEL to its gasoline. While other petroleum companies produced more costly "hi-test" brands using TEL for the new high-compression engines that Detroit was building, Sun Oil continued selling one brand of gasoline under the slogan "One grade fits all." The company did this by starting with carefully selected high-grade crude oils and using precise refining techniques. But Pew was aware of the limitations of these methods and realized that they might not be able to keep up with engine improvements forever.

So when Pew heard that Houdry was offering a way to pro-duce higher-octane gasoline without additives, he sent his chief engineer, Clarence Thayer, to visit him. Thayer obtained a sample of the product, and tests at Sun's laboratory showed that Houdry's gasoline had an octane number of 81, which was 8 better than the best additive-enhanced gasoline.

A few days later Houdry visited Pew in his office. Houdry later called this "the most beautiful day of my life." After a conversation lasting about 40 minutes, they reached a deal for Sun to develop the Houdry process as a commercial enter-prise. Soon Houdry was working out of Sun's Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, plant, with the company providing $450,000 to build a large-scale unit. In return, Sun would receive patent rights to any new technology developed there. Pew held back from making Sun a partner in the Houdry Process Corporation, preferring to wait and see what happened before he negotiated a share in the company.

Houdry's engineering team in Marcus Hook had two major problems to solve in scaling up the laboratory process. The first was the regeneration of large volumes of catalyst. While Houdry had demonstrated success in burning off the carbon coating in the lab, it remained to be seen if this step could be successful in a large-scale unit. The second challenge was to efficiently balance the heat requirements throughout the plant, using the heat generated in burning carbon off the catalyst to vaporize the feedstock.

Pew supplied engineers from Sun's refineries and his ship-building business. Alex Oblad, a catalyst scientist employed on the project, later wrote that while catalytic cracking looked like a chemical-engineering problem, in some ways it was bet-ter that Houdry was trained as a mechanical engineer: "The mechanical problems encountered and solved in developing catalytic cracking were formidable and proved to be as important as the chemical problems." Choices regarding the materials to be used, the pressures, flow rates, types of valves, and heating and cooling apparatus all had both chemical and mechanical aspects.

Once again Houdry plunged into the job headfirst. He knew that this might be his last opportunity to prove the feasibility of his process, and he was determined to succeed. He was called impulsive, intuitive, fiery, and compassionate, among other things. He sometimes spent 24 hours a day at the plant, and he expected the same from his colleagues. He also had a short fuse. "He was known for his quick temper," wrote a colleague. "Almost everyone who worked for him was `fired' two or three times, but immediately rehired."

 

OVER THE NEXT TWO YEARS, FROM 1933 TO 1935, THE engineering team solved the challenges one by one. After determining a suitable airflow rate for regenerating the catalyst, they had to devise a way to eliminate downtime during regeneration. They did so by including two separate catalyst cases that could be automatically switched on- and offline, so that when one catalyst case was busy cracking petroleum, the other was being regenerated. Later a third case would be added, and switching would occur in a 30-minute cycle as follows: 10 minutes on stream, 5 minutes to purge petroleum vapors with reduced pressure and steam, 10 minutes to regenerate the catalyst, and 5 minutes to purge combustion products from regeneration.

Another problem was heat recycling. Regeneration released heat and cracking consumed it, and there had to be a way to balance the two. At first a water-based cooling system was installed to keep the catalyst from becoming too hot during regeneration, but the resulting high-pressure steam and the repeated heating and cooling placed too much stress on the water tubes. So molten salt was substituted to absorb the heat evolved by regeneration and transfer it to a crude-oil vaporizing unit. Using this excess heat to preheat the feedstock and pro-vide steam for the rest of the plant meant that the process needed far less energy input. At one Houdry plant, 800,000 pounds of molten salt flowed at a rate of 14,400 gallons per minute.

Meanwhile, the laboratory chemists were trying more than a thousand catalyst compositions. Houdry's initial clay formula received patent number 2,078,945 on May 4, 1937. It had the color of well-chewed gum and was extruded in the approximate size and shape of macaroni. This catalyst worked well, but it was possible that clay from a different source might be better or that the addition of other substances might improve the efficiency of the cracking process. So Houdry's chemists tried kaolin clay from many different regions and doped it with chromium, vanadium, magnesium, nickel, zinc, cobalt, copper, iron. . . . At least 50 new catalysts were tested each month during these two years.

By 1935, with more than two million dollars spent, Pew had seen enough of the process to become convinced of its ultimate success, and he also had a batch of patents for different aspects of it in Sun's name. At this point he negotiated for Sun a one-third interest in the Houdry Process Corporation by persuading the French coalition to sell him half its shares. Now Pew, the French group, and Socony-Vacuum each owned a third. They decided not to keep the process to themselves but to sell licenses to any refinery willing to pay the price. E. B. Badger and Sons Company, of Boston, would build the units, and the Houdry Process Corporation would manufacture the catalysts.

In June of 1936 the experimental Socony-Vacuum plant at Paulsboro, New Jersey, began cracking 2,000 barrels of crude per day. (A barrel is 42 gallons.) In his excitement, and in gratitude to the country that had played host to his success, Houdry raised an American flag on top of the cracking unit. On March 31, 1937, Houdry Unit Eleven Four came on line at Sun's Marcus Hook plant. It was capable of cracking 15,000 barrels per day of residuum feedstock left over from a thermal cracking unit, and it yielded 48 percent of 81-octane gasoline. This was the success that Pew trumpeted at the 1938 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute. Fortune called it the "Miracle at Eleven Four."

These Houdry units looked very much like fixtures in any standard refinery, except they had catalyst cases where stills would normally be found. A typical catalyst case stood 38 feet high and 101/2 feet in diameter and was filled with silica-alumina catalyst. The cost of the catalyst was $25,000 for a plant charging 10,000 barrels of feedstock per day, and it was guaranteed to last at least 180 days on stream (that is, 540 days of calendar time).

These catalyst cases converted a refinery into a versatile chemical-engineering factory that could run in many modes, depending on the feedstock. If it was crude oil, the oil was pumped through preheaters powered by the molten-salt flow. From there the vapors passed into a fractionating tower, where an ordinary straight-run distillation occurred, separating the crude oil into all the usual fractions. Except for the molten-salt heat source, this step was similar to any other refiner's operations.

The thick residuum from the fractionating tower was then pumped into a still, where it was heated to 880 degrees and vaporized. (If the run started with residuum instead of crude, the fractionating step was skipped, and the residuum was charged directly to the still.) This vapor rose at low pressure through the active catalyst case, where the long-chain hydro-carbons were cracked into smaller molecules. Another fractionation separated the resulting mixture into gasoline, furnace oil, and heavy gas oil. The latter two fractions could then be put through the system again for further cracking if desired.

The fall of France to Germany in 1940 was a severe blow to the patriotic Houdry. He responded politically by founding and serving as president of France Forever, a group dedicated to restoring French independence under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle. His technical contribution to the war effort consisted of making continuous improvements in the process that bore his name.

By the time of the 1939 American Petroleum Institute meeting, Sun had 10 Houdry units in operation, and the company announced its latest wrinkle: Catalytic "reforming" of gasoline to produce an even higher-octane gasoline that was suitable for use in aviation fuel. Although it used the same apparatus, reforming was different from cracking. In reforming, the light gasoline fractions derived from catalytic cracking were passed through the Houdry unit a second time. This added step re-adjusted the molecular structure of the hydrocarbons, making them more branched and increasing the octane number slightly.

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS INNOVATION WAS CLEAR. Improvements in aircraft since World War I had led the U.S. Army to specify fuel of 100 octane or greater for its fighter planes. To achieve this level required blending refined gasoline, which normally had an octane number somewhere in the 70s, with pure isooctane and isopentane to boost that octane number, and then boosting it still further with additives such as TEL. By starting with Houdry's reformed gasoline, however, aviation fuel could reach 100 octane with half the additives needed for other gasolines. (Among its virtues, catalytic cracking produced gasoline with a lower sulfur content than other methods, making it more responsive to TEL's effects.) This was important, because not only could too much of an additive or blending agent harm an engine's performance (by decreasing volatility, for example), but the additives were expensive and used scarce production capacity. By 1941 Houdry's firm had developed a new catalyst that could produce aviation-quality gasoline with one pass through the Houdry unit, eliminating the two-step reforming process.

Houdry's apparatus produced 90 percent of all catalytically cracked Allied aviation fuel in the first two years of American involvement in World War II. From a start of 40,000 barrels per day in 1941, production climbed to 200,000 barrels per day in 1943 and peaked at 373,000 barrels per day in 1944. America's contribution was irreplaceable, because on the eve of the war, American companies had been extracting about 60 percent of the world's petroleum, with the U.S.S.R. accounting for 17 percent and Britain and the Netherlands most of the rest. The Axis powers extracted virtually no petroleum. The Germans had made great strides in producing liquid fuels from coal, and after their early territorial conquests, notably in Romania, they had ample oil supplies. But with almost no homegrown knowledge base in oil refining, they were not able to catch up with the latest American advances, including catalytic cracking. Not until after the war did Germany or Japan begin producing 100-octane gasoline.

A number of factors contributed to America's dramatic increase in production of aviation fuel. Among these were an increase in the maximum permitted TEL content (allowing more flexibility with lower-octane gasoline), the conversion of refining units from auto-mobile to aviation fuel, and increased production of power-boosting additives. Still, the most important was the existence of a base stock of high-octane gasoline to mix with the additives and blending agents. As Arthur Pew's uncle, J. Howard Pew, the president of Sun Oil, remarked, "Without catalytic cracking it would have been impossible to meet the aviation gasoline requirements of the flying forces. Thus no man has made a greater contribution to the war effort than our friend, Eugène J. Houdry."

When the war ended, demand for aviation fuel plummeted, but the postwar hegemony of the automobile ensured a future for catalytic cracking. By that time a fluid catalytic-cracking process had made the original Houdry method obsolete. This process had first been investigated in the 1920s by Standard Oil of New Jersey, but research on it was abandoned during the Depression. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the success of Houdry's process became apparent, Standard of New Jersey resumed the project as part of a consortium with Standard of Indiana, Texaco, Shell, Universal Oil Products, and other firms (including, in the early days, I. G. Farben of Germany, which had great expertise in catalysis).

In the consortium's continuous process, the catalyst, ground into a fine powder and suspended in a flow of air in what is called a fluidized bed, had vapors of the petroleum feedstock blown through it. In 1944 Houdry and his co-workers introduced their own continuous catalytic-cracking process, known as TCC, or Thermafor Catalytic Cracking. But the original Houdry process had both established the use of catalysis in the petroleum industry and helped win the war.

In 1946 Houdry returned in triumph to a free France to give a speech entitled "The United States and France" before the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale. He summarized his 16 years of living abroad, his technical achievements, and the warm feelings he had for the American people: "The belief is general in the United States that the best way to keep the world at peace is to improve the standard of living of all the peoples. I insist upon all."

He returned to America and, in 1948, resigned as president of the Houdry Process Corporation. "I had finished what I had set out to do and wasn't interested in working further to cut the price of gasoline one-tenth of a cent," he said. He needed new challenges, and he found them without ever leaving the field of catalysis.

In 1950 he formed Oxy-Catalyst, Inc., in Wayne, Pennsylvania, to try to reduce the automobile emissions that he believed were causing an increase in lung cancer. He invented the first catalytic converter (see "Doing the Impossible," Invention & Technology, Winter 2004) but was too far ahead of his time to make a profit from it.

He also became interested in the chemistry of the human body. Enzymes are biological catalysts, and he began to research them, stating, "There is no machine like the human body. It is a catalytic system which lasts longer than any other, that runs continuously 24 hours a day producing power at 98.6 Fahrenheit and at atmospheric pressure." By the early 1960s he had invented a catalytic mask that he wore while sleeping to purify the air and provide increased levels of oxygen to his body.

He died in 1962, but his contributions to catalysis, to the Allied cause in World War II, and to the extension of the world's petroleum reserves are not forgotten. The North American Catalysis Society presents the Eugène J. Houdry Award in Applied Catalysis every year. In 1996 the American Chemical Society named the Marcus Hook plant a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Houdry's son Jacques was on hand for the celebration, along with the oil-spattered American flag that his father, in his excitement, had placed on the summit of the Paulsboro unit in 1936.

TIM PALUCKA is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 

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