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.