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From C&EN Archives: Catalysis

by Ann M. Thayer
September 9, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 36

Even 90 years ago, societal wants and needs were coming into conflict with natural resource availability. At the time, few realized that catalysis would enable more efficient petroleum processing to meet fuel needs and support the production of the vast majority of downstream chemical products known today. Columbia University professor Ralph H. McKee was quoted in C&EN’s first incarnation, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry News Edition (1923, 1(5), 2), saying that "petroleum production in the United States will begin to decline, probably within three years, and that it will be necessary to develop the shale fields very soon, in order to insure a domestic supply of motor fuels."

But by 1939, I&EC (1939, 17(3), 85) reported that the new catalytic cracking process, “together with the older ones, would make possible the production of gasoline for both automobiles and airplanes for the entire world from the crude reserves available in the U.S.”

In that same article, IE&C also noted that “it is estimated that the cost per mile of operating with the new gasoline will be in line with present motoring and flying costs, but a new era in automobile design will lie ahead because the superior characteristics of the new fuel will undoubtedly spur automobile engineers to design and build far better engines.”

After the promise of petroleum was realized through catalytic methods, it would take several more years before chemical processes and a wealth of new products reached any scale. “All the organic chemicals including rubber and alcohol needed to meet the entire world’s needs for a year could be made from 10 days’ crude oil production. While negligible as a volume outlet for crude oil, the petroleum-chemical field is nonetheless of extreme importance,” said Robert Price Russell, president of Standard Oil Development Co., in a report on his Cadman Memorial Lecture (C&EN, 1947, 25(24), 1737).


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