A Little History of the Hydrocarbon Processing that Meets Society’s Demands

Published February 23, 2022

The hydrocarbon processing industry, i.e., refineries, has a rich history of discovery, challenges, breakthroughs, trial and error, collaboration, and success. Looking back a little more than 100 years, it’s easy to see how civilization has benefited from more than 250 leading-edge, hydrocarbon processing licensed refining technologies used by the more than 700 refineries worldwide that service the demands of the 8 billion living on earth with more than 6,000 products made from the oil derivatives manufactured out of raw crude oil at refineries. None of these products were available to society before 1900.

If it were not for the demands of society, it’s easy to understand that there would be no need whatsoever for the supply of crude oil to refineries, to be manufactured into usable products if there was no demand for those products. As the public remains unwilling to be mandated and regulated into an inferior lifestyle like our predecessors just a few hundred years ago, we have been witnessing shortages and inflation of most everything these days.

With the world enthralled with the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) movement to divest in fossil fuels and plastic i.e., bottles, plates, and utensils and with no known replacement in the foreseeable future for the crude oil used in the hydrocarbon processing industry, i.e., refineries, let’s review some of the inventions that may be excluded from our lifestyles in the future. We’ll do a review, in layman’s terms, on the origins of the modern refining and petrochemicals industries that supports todays demands for polyethylene, synthetic fibers, resins, and jet engines:

NOTE: If you have no interest in the 16 points about the development of the hydrocarbon processing industry, please jump to the concluding comments.

  1. The hydrocarbon processing industry continued to evolve during the 1930s. Starting with the discovery of kerosene, the construction of new refineries around the world, the production of the first synthetic plastics, and the rise of the internal combustion engine (ICE), oil demand’s exponential growth during and after World War I (WWI) and how thermal cracking evolved in refining processing.

  1. Around the timeframe (circa 1938), the alkylation process was commercialized in the U.S. The process produced high-octane aviation fuel, which saw significant demand increase during World War 2 (WW2). The process was then used in the 1950s to produce blending components for automotive fuel.

  1. In 1939, the first commercial-scale polyethylene plant went into operation on an industrial scale. Within the next few years, many polyethylene plants went into operation, primarily to aide in the allied war effort. polyethylene was used extensively as insulating material for radar cables during WW2. The material was lightweight, which enabled Britain to install radar in their fighter planes, providing a significant technical advantage in long-distance air warfare. Due to this wartime advantage, the production of polyethylene for insulated cabling was highly secretive. It was not until post WW2 that the production of polyethylene was commercialized. Within several years, PE production capacity significantly increased and would later become the world’s most used thermoplastic.

  1. Several new chemical discoveries took place in the 1930s that have provided the global population with new products to improve standards of living. These included the discovery and production of polystyrene, polyepoxide, nylon, polyester, and neoprene.

  1. Although polystyrene was discovered in the late 1830s, styrene—which would lead to the production of polystyrene—would not be commercialized for nearly 100 years. Styrene production increased significantly in both Germany and in the U.S. during WW2 to produce synthetic rubbers to aide in the war effort. In the late 1930s, Dow Chemical created foam polystyrene which expanded approximately 40 times in size. Dow would later commercialize this discovery as expanded polystyrene, better known and marketed under the name Styrofoam.

  1. After the discovery of neoprene in 1931 for many applications (construction, automotive, medical equipment, fabrics, electrical equipment, textiles, among others) efforts were directed to producing synthetic fibers. By the mid-1930s, Nylon first became a household product as women’s hosiery, later being used in the U.S. war effort to produce parachutes and tents. Over the next several decades, nylon would be used extensively as a combined fabric in fashion and apparel, as well as in several industrial applications—the global nylon industry market size is forecast to reach more than $46 billion by the late 2020s.

  1. Research also led to the discovery of polyester in the early 1930s. However, the discovery of nylon pushed additional research on polyester to the backburner. It was not until the late 1930s that work on synthetic fibers would eventually lead to the development of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in 1941. In the early 1970s, PET began to be used in the production of plastic bottles, and today, PET is the fourth most produced polymer after PE, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride.

  1. The DuPont company was not finished with major polymer discoveries of the 1930s. Researching chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants to find a better way to refrigerate food.  Further investigation found the substance to be heat resistant and had a low surface friction. DuPont polymer scientists determined that the tetrafluoroethylene gas polymerized to produce the material, which DuPont would later market under the name Teflon.

  1. In 1936, Monsanto Chemical Co., produced melamine formaldehyde by polymerizing formaldehyde with melamine. This new substance was a thermosetting plastic that was very good at maintaining strength and shape. Melamine resins were used for many different applications, including in utensils, plates, furniture, cups, bowls, laminates, toilet seats, automotive and epoxy coatings, among others. Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) is a clear thermoplastic resin that is more transparent than glass and 6x–7x more resistant to breakage than glass. PMMA is also known as acrylic, acrylic glass, perspex, or plexiglass, as well as by the trade names and brands Crylux, Plexiglas, Acrylite, Astariglas, Lucite, Perclax, and Perspex, among several others. This plastic is often used in sheet form as a lightweight or shatter-resistant alternative to glass. It can also be used as a casting resin, in inks and coatings, and for many other purposes.

  1. Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) is commonly used for prosthetic dental applications, including the fabrication of artificial teeth, denture bases, dentures, obturators, orthodontic retainers, temporary or provisional crowns, and for the repair of dental prostheses.

  1. Around the same timeframe, creation of the epoxy resin bisphenol A diglycidyl ether (DGEBA or commonly abbreviated as BADGE), which would become the most widely used commercial-grade resin in the world. Epoxy resins are presently used in many industrial and commercial applications, including paints and coatings, adhesives, electrical systems and electronics, marine and aerospace applications, and many more.

  1. In 1937, Bayer created a new polymer named polyurethane, which would later be used in many applications, including in construction, furniture, insulation, coatings, adhesives, sealants, elastomers, moldings, appliances, automotive, apparel and many more.

  1. A look at the ingenuity that took us to the skies. Prior to designing engines, British engineer and inventor Frank Whittle was an airplane apprentice and pilot at the Royal Air Force (RAF) College Cranwell. Whittle believed that the evolution in flight would not be better propeller designs but the use of improved combustion engines for propulsion. In addition, he believed that airplanes would be able to fly faster (more than 500 mph) and farther at higher altitudes due to low air density. Whittle continued to publicize his jet engine concept and filed a patent for his engine design two years later in 1930. According to literature, the concept was a two-stage axial compressor feeding a single-sided centrifugal compressor, what he referred to as a “turbojet.”  

  1. Unbeknownst to Whittle, German physicist and engineer Hans von Ohain was developing a similar jet engine in Germany. on August 27, 1939, test pilot Erich Warsitz flew a plane equipped with a HeS 3b centrifugal-flow turbojet engine—the latest iteration. This historic day marked the world’s first jet-powered aircraft flight.

  1. Although Ohain beat Whittle to the first jet engine test flight, Whittle continued to improve his designs. As WW2 started, he received additional financial backing from the UK Air Ministry. In 1940, the first British jet-powered plane—the Gloster E.28/39—was flown using Whittle’s W1A engine. As war raged in Europe, the UK Air Ministry was ordering several thousand jet engines per month. By 1944, Whittle’s engine design—produced by Rolls Royce—was used in the first British fighter planes, the Gloster Meteor, that could reach speeds of 600 mph.

  1. Over the next several years, jet engine designs continued to be optimized, primarily for military aircraft. However, on July 27, 1949, the world’s first jet-propelled airliner made its test flight in England. This historic occasion marked the first use of a jet-powered passenger plane, which would revolutionize travel. Over the next several decades, the jet-powered passenger plane would enable passengers to travel faster and farther in a shorter duration and build a nearly $200 billion industry to carry billions of people each year to various destinations around the world via more than 50,000 commercial, military, and private jets.

As the world engaged in conflict in the 1940’s, demand for fuels and chemical products manufactured from crude oil soared to aid in the war effort. Post-WW2 ushered in new technological advances for producing higher octane fuels and chemical products that increased the standard of living for hundreds of millions around the world.

Today, there are more than 250 leading-edge, hydrocarbon processing licensed refining technologies used by the more than 700 refineries worldwide that service the demands of the 8 billion living on earth with more than 6,000 products made from the oil derivatives manufactured out of raw crude oil at refineries. None of these products were available to society before 1900.

We know that wind turbines and solar panels are made from the derivatives manufactured from crude oil. Turbines and panels are made from oil, and obviously cannot manufacture anything, they can only generate electricity whenever the wind blows or the sun shines.

With more than 100 years of development in the hydrocarbon processing industry, we still have yet to identify a replacement or clone to replicate the properties of crude oil that has allowed us to manufacture more than 6,000 products made from fossil fuels that were not available before 1900.

As the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) divesting objectives to divest in fossil fuels progresses throughout the world, most of the hydrocarbon processing industry discoveries over the last 100 years will most likely experience supply shortages and soaring prices as the continuous and growing demand by society for these fossil fuel products will fuel (no pun intended) inflation onto the diminished supplies of those products.

First published at: CFACT.

Photo by James St. John, Public Domain Mark 1.0.