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​Celebrating 75 Years of Fluid Catalytic Cracking (FCC) Technolog​y​

75 years ago, Grace shipped the world's first FCC catalysts from Curtis Bay, MD to the first cat cracker in Baton Rouge, LA. This innovative FCC process helped to fuel an Allied victory in World War II. Today, Grace remains an innovator in the field as the leading supplier of best-in-class FCC catalyst and additive technology. Read on for the fascinating history of FCC catalysts, the role Grace played in the beginning, and Grace’s continued innovation in the global fuel refining market today.​

​Learn more about Grace's broad portfolio of catalysts and additives.​

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created by beccadh Curtis Bay 1942.jpg

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​​​Key Events

1919: Invention of silica gel

1921: Formation of Silica Gel Corporation

1926: Early silica gel commercial application

1941: Stepped-up efforts in catalyst research at Standard Oil of New Jersey and Davison Chemical Company

1942: First commercial production of the synthetic powdered Fluid Cracking Catalyst

1956: ​​​​Last commercial run of powdered Fluid Cracking Catalyst, replaced by Grace's synthetic powdered FCC technology




Curtis Bay, Maryland USA in 1942

+ Necessity: The Mother of Invention

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, forced the rapid acceleration of efforts to provide Allied fighters with 100 octane aviation gasoline and synthetic rubber. Both the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now known as ExxonMobil) and the Davison Chemical Company (now W. R. Grace & Co.) were working against the clock to develop and commercialize a new petroleum refining process and catalyst that would increase fuel production and improve fuel quality.

As the midway point of the war approached in early 1942, Davison constructed a plant in Curtis Bay, MD which would soon become the world’s first FCC catalyst manufacturing facility. In addition to improving gasoline octane, the silica-alumina catalyst increased the yield of butenes – the raw material in synthetic rubber manufacture – from catalytic cracking. In the end, the development of FCC contributed to the production of 100 octane aviation fuel and synthetic rubber for the Allies. The technology’s immense economic advantages led to the investments necessary to process one million barrels a day during the war. Today, it remains the process of choice for gasoline production through cracking.

+ A History of Innovation

The dramatic events of World War II are not where the story begins. The genesis of the FCC technology that helped the Allies and today provides for approximately half of all motor gasoline produced goes as far back as March of 1919. Professor Walter Patrick of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD was granted a U. S. Patent for the development of a novel method of producing silica gel with high surface area and pore volume. The first batches of silica gel prepared at the Hopkins Laboratories were dried on the radiator in the winter and on a tin roof in the summer.

Patrick and Ernest Miller, Vice President of Operations at Davison Chemical, sang in the same glee club. Together, they formed the Silica Gel Corporation in 1921 and hired Gerald Connolly to be their new Director of Research. To get started on Patrick’s patented innovation, they rented manufacturing facilities from Davison’s Curtis Bay, MD site.

The Silica Gel Corporation spent considerable resources to develop practical uses for silica gel. However, after borrowing a considerable sum from Davison Chemical, the fledgling company went bankrupt and was sold to Davison for one dollar, along with Patrick’s patent. Connolly left to work for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.

When Davison experienced its own hardship in 1933, the company was put into receivership under a shrewd businessman named Chester Hockley. He saw exciting opportunities in the field of petroleum refining based on the development of a new catalytic cracking process for gasoline production developed by Eugene Houdry. Houdry’s new process used a fixed bed of acid treated bentonite clay catalyst formed into beads.

Standard Oil of New Jersey approached Houdry for help with enhancing its own gasoline production. However, Houdry demanded a large license fee - $50 million – for the rights to use his process. Looking for a less expensive alternative, Standard turned to Gerald Connolly, the former Research Director of Silica Gel Corporation. Researchers at Standard had ideas for a new continuous cracking process that were similar to the novel process employed by his former employers to remove condensate from natural gas. He urged Standard to discuss silica gel with Davison.

+ The World’s First FCC Catalyst Plant

In 1940, Standard initiated the construction of a gasoline production plant using powdered catalyst. Its research labs were confirming the superiority of silica gel-based catalysts, so Standard made a generous financial offer to Davison to build a catalyst plant and agreed to purchase product from the plant. In return, Davison was to provide the silica gel patent rights, as well as construct and operate the catalyst plant. This deal would take Davison out of receivership, and Hockley agreed enthusiastically. In 1941, Standard Oil of New Jersey signed a contract with Davison Chemical for the supply of silica gel-based cracking catalyst.

Tommy Tongue, an engineer at Davison, worked with Gerald Connolly at Standard to develop the new catalyst. This was accomplished by chemically modifying silica gel, making it better than the clay-based catalyst used in Houdry’s process in providing gasoline with a higher octane rating. Davison built a low-cost catalyst pilot plant in September 1941 at the Curtis Bay site. They simply punched a hole though the wall of an adjacent plant and pumped silica gel through the hole into a 5’ x 20’ wooden tank where a reaction with aluminum sulfate took place.

Meanwhile, Standard was building an FCC pilot plant to convert 100 barrels per day of oil into gasoline. Davison’s pilot plant manufactured a six ton batch of silica-alumina catalyst for Standard. The powdered catalyst could flow like a fluid - an engineering marvel! A boxcar full of catalyst could be circulated across a reactor in just two minutes without a single moving part. Discoveries by Professor Warren K. Lewis at MIT and millions of man hours of research, development, and engineering at Standard enabled this breakthrough process.

Davison completed it first commercial run of silica-alumina catalyst on May 9, 1942, but it didn’t ship in time for the start up of Standard’s first FCC unit at Baton Rouge, LA for production of aviation gasoline on May 25. So, Standard first used the older clay-based catalyst. A few months later in August of 1942, they loaded Davison’s silica-alumina catalyst into the unit. The Baton Rouge site is now designated as a National Chemical Historic Landmark.

+ Post War Progress

Many historians consider the ready availability of fuels for the Allied forces and fuel shortages encountered by the German army as key to the Allied victory. The synthetic Fluid Cracking Catalyst and the FCC process played a large role in supplying the Allied forces with necessary fuel.

Post war, demand for motor fuel resulted in the growth of the FCC process and FCC catalyst production and resulted in a need to improve the FCC catalyst performance. Powdered catalyst with an irregular shape was ground into fine particles during use, which were then lost to the atmosphere. Researchers at Standard and Davison were working on methods to reduce these losses. Tongue and Leon Baral at Davison developed a new spray drying process that involved the production of microspheres, a spherical shaped catalyst about 70 µm in diameter. These new catalysts dramatically reduced catalyst losses in the FCC unit, but it made the original plant at Curtis Bay technologically obsolete. The last production run of the powdered silica-alumina catalyst was carried out in 1956, two years after Davison was acquired by W. R. Grace & Co.

+ FCC Technology Today

Innovation in FCC technology provided a dramatic improvement in capital and operating costs relative to the previous Fixed Bed Catalytic Cracking process. The technological improvement for petroleum refining provided by FCC over fixed bed cracking is similar to the improvement for the electronics industry offered by transistors over vacuum tubes.

The FCC process remains the preferred process for global fuel production today. Grace’s catalyst technology has been continually improved to meet changing needs. The Curtis Bay plant produced 18 tons/day of FCC catalyst in 1942. Modern plants produce at rates ranging from 150 to 350 tons/day. As the need to produce cleaner burning fuels increases, Grace continues to lead the way with new and better solutions for the industry.

Our broad portfolio of state-of-the-art catalyst and additive systems helps refineries stay competitive and move forward toward maximizing the yield of the most valuable products and selecting the optimal catalyst for the various feedstocks.

Our industry-leading technical service and highly specialized engineers to support our customers with application and operations expertise, start-up, optimization assistance, and industry benchmarking. Also, our sophisticated R&D facilities and high-throughput testing labs enable more stable and profitable operations. Our experience, backed by manufacturing excellence, has made Grace the world's leading supplier of FCC catalyst and additives.

This article was based on “Development of the fluid cracking catalyst” by Thomas Tongue (posth) and Kuppuswamy Rajagopalan, published by W.R. Grace & Co.

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