Eugene Houdry: Catalytic Cracking of low-grade fuel into gasoline

Eugene Houdry

Eugene Houdry

One of the first improve­ments in petro­chem­i­cal pro­duc­tion was the process devel­oped by Eugene Houdry for “crack­ing” petro­leum mol­e­cules into the shorter ones that con­sti­tute gaso­line. (Ear­lier com­mer­cial processes for crack­ing petro­leum relied instead on heat.)

Eugene Houdry (1892–1962) obtained a degree in mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing in his native France before join­ing the fam­ily met­al­work­ing busi­ness in 1911. After he served in the tank corps in World War I—for which he received hon­ors for extra­or­di­nary hero­ism in battle—he pur­sued his inter­est in auto­mo­biles (espe­cially race cars) and their engines. On a trip to the United States he vis­ited the Ford Motor Com­pany fac­tory and attended the Indi­anapo­lis 500 race. His inter­est soon nar­rowed to improved fuels. Because France pro­duced lit­tle petroleum—and the world sup­ply was thought to have nearly run out—Houdry, like many other chemists and engi­neers, searched for a method to make gaso­line from France’s plen­ti­ful lig­nite (brown coal). After test­ing hun­dreds of cat­a­lysts to effect the hoped-for mol­e­c­u­lar rearrange­ment, Houdry began work­ing with silica-alumina and changed his feed­stock from lig­nite to heavy liq­uid tars. By 1930 he had pro­duced small sam­ples of gaso­line that showed promise as a motor fuel.

In the early 1930s Houdry col­lab­o­rated with two Amer­i­can oil com­pa­nies, Socony Vac­uum and Sun Oil, to build pilot plants. Oil com­pa­nies that did not want to resort to the new addi­tive tetraethyl lead were eagerly look­ing for other means to increase octane lev­els in gaso­line. In 1937 Sun Oil opened a full-scale Houdry unit at its refin­ery in Mar­cus Hook, Penn­syl­va­nia, to pro­duce high-octane Nu-Blue Sunoco gaso­line. By 1942, 14 Houdry fixed-bed cat­alytic units were bear­ing the unan­tic­i­pated bur­den of pro­duc­ing high-octane avi­a­tion gaso­line for the armed forces.

(One lim­i­ta­tion of the process was that it deposited coke on the cat­a­lyst, which required that the unit be shut down while the coke was burned off in a regen­er­a­tion cycle. War­ren K. Lewis and Edwin R. Gilliland of the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, who were hired as con­sul­tants to Stan­dard Oil Com­pany of New Jer­sey [now Exxon­Mo­bil], finally solved this prob­lem with great inge­nu­ity and effort. They devel­oped the “mov­ing bed” cat­alytic con­verter, in which the cat­a­lyst was itself cir­cu­lated between two enor­mous ves­sels, the reac­tor and the regenerator.)

Houdry con­tin­ued his work with cat­a­lysts and became par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated with the cat­alytic role of enzymes in the human body and the changes in enzyme-assisted processes caused by can­cer. About 1950, when the results of early stud­ies of smog in Los Ange­les were pub­lished, Houdry became con­cerned about the role of auto­mo­bile exhaust in air pol­lu­tion and founded a spe­cial com­pany, Oxy-Catalyst, to develop cat­alytic con­vert­ers for gaso­line engines—an idea ahead of its time. But until lead could be elim­i­nated from gaso­line (lead was intro­duced in the 1920s to raise octane lev­els), it poi­soned any catalyst.

The fol­low­ing taken from Chem­i­cal Her­itage Foun­da­tions Oth­mer Library Cat­a­log,-1,0,B/frameset&FF=darchival+materials&5„16.

Eugene Houdry was born on April 18, 1892 in France. In 1911 he received a degree in mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing. He worked for his family’s metal work­ing busi­ness. In 1930, he moved to the U.S. wher he rev­o­lu­tion­ized the pro­duc­tion of gaso­line by devel­op­ing a process for crack­ing low-grade fuel into high test gaso­line. Dur­ing WWII, he devel­oped a single-step butane dehy­dro­gena­tion process for pro­duc­ing syn­thetic rub­ber. After WWII, he founded a com­pany enti­tled Oxy-Catalyst, and shifted his focus to reduc­ing health risks asso­ci­ated with auto­mo­bile exhaust. He patented the cat­alytic muf­fler for auto­mo­biles in 1962. He died on July 18, 1962. He was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1990.
Con­tributed by A. Mills and Chem­i­cal Her­itage (