Fluid Catalytic Cracking and Eger Murphree

Patent No. 2,451,804 Method of and Apparatus for Contacting Solids and Gases

Over half the world’s gasoline is currently produced by a process developed in 1942 by a group called the “Four Horsemen” of Exxon Research and Engineering Company. The world’s first commercial Fluid Catalytic Cracking facility began production for Exxon on May 25, 1942. The Fluid Cat Cracking process revolutionized the petroleum industry by more efficiently transforming higher boiling oils into lighter, usable products.

The four Exxon inventors responsible for this cracking process are Donald L. Campbell, Homer Z. Martin, Eger V. Murphree, and Charles Wesley Tyson.

When Exxon’s first commercial cat cracking facility went on-line in 1942, the U.S. had just entered World War II and was facing a shortage of high-octane aviation gasoline. This new process allowed the U.S. petroleum industry to increase output of aviation fuel by 6,000% over the next three years. Fluid Cat Cracking also aided the rapid buildup of butadiene production, which enhanced Exxon’s process for making synthetic butyl rubber–another new technology vital to the Allied war effort.

In the 1930s, Exxon began looking for a way to increase the yield of high-octane gasoline from crude oil. Researchers discovered that a finely powdered catalyst behaved like a fluid when mixed with oil in the form of vapor. During the cracking process, a catalyst will split hydrocarbon molecule chains into smaller pieces. These smaller, or cracked, molecules then go through a distillation process to retrieve the usable product. During the cracking process, the catalyst becomes covered with carbon; the carbon is then burned off and the catalyst can be re-used.

Campbell, Martin, Murphree, and Tyson began thinking of a design that would allow for a moving catalyst to ensure a steady and continuous cracking operation. The four ultimately invented a fluidized solids reactor bed and a pipe transfer system between the reactor and the regenerator unit in which the catalyst is processed for re-use. In this way, the solids and gases are continuously brought in contact with each other to bring on the chemical change.

This work culminated in a 100 barrel-per-day demonstration pilot plant located at Exxon’s Baton Rouge facility. The first commercial production plant processed 13,000 barrels of heavy oil daily, making 275,000 gallons of gasoline.

Considered essential to refinery operation, Fluid Cat Cracking produces gasoline as well as heating oil, fuel oil, propane, butane, and chemical feedstocks that are instrumental in producing other products such as plastics, synthetic rubbers and fabrics, and cosmetics. During today’s Fluid Cat Cracking process, a boxcar load of catalyst is mixed with a stream of oil vapor every minute. It is this mixture, behaving like a fluid, that moves continuously through the system as cracking reactions take place.

Fluid Cat Cracking currently takes place in over 370 Fluid Cat Cracking units in refineries around the world, producing almost 1/2 billion gallons of gasoline daily. It is considered one of the most important chemical engineering achievements of the 20th century. Fluid Cat Cracking technology continues to evolve as cleaner high-performance fuels are explored.

Donald L. Campbell was born August 5, 1904 in Clinton, Iowa. He has always been fascinated by inventing and solving problems. He first attended Iowa State University, then MIT and the Harvard Business School. During his 41 years at Exxon, 25 were spent in Exxon Research & Engineering. At his retirement in 1969, he held 30 patents and was the assistant to the vice president of New Areas of Research.

Homer Zettler Martin was born on November 20, 1910 in Chicago, Illinois. He received his B.S. in chemical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and his M.S. and Ph.D. from Michigan. After joining Exxon in 1937, he became one of its most prolific inventors, with 82 patents upon his retirement in 1973. Martin died in Sun City, Arizona on September 1, 1993.

Eger Vaughan Murphree, born November 3, 1898 in Bayonne, New Jersey, moved as a youngster with his family to Kentucky. At Kentucky University, he graduated with degrees in chemistry and mathematics (1920), then went on for his master’s in chemistry (1921). After working as a high school teacher and football coach for a period of time, he attended MIT for two years. In 1924, he went to work at Solvay Process Company as a chemical engineer, and in 1930, joined what was then Standard Oil of New Jersey. From 1947 to 1962, he served as president of the Standard Oil Development Co., which was renamed Esso Research & Engineering in 1955. In 1956, he was given the job of directing military projects related to the guided-missile program; he served one year as special assistant to Defense Secretary Charles Wilson. Murphree, who was also a member of the committee that organized the Manhattan Project, was widely recognized as a leader in the fields of synthetic toluene, butadiene and hydrocarbon synthesis, fluid catalytic cracking, fluid hydroforming, and fluid coking. He died of a heart attack in 1962.

Charles Wesley Tyson, known as Wes to his friends, was born in 1900. In 1930, after receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from MIT, he joined Esso. In 1961, he was appointed special assistant to the vice president of Exxon Research & Engineering, and at his retirement in 1962, he held 50 patents. Tyson died in 1977.

Copyright 1999, National Inventors Hall of Fame, Akron, Ohio.