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 (