The hydrocarbon processing industry, ie refineries, has a rich history of discoveries, challenges, breakthroughs, trial and error, collaboration and success. Looking back just over 100 years, it’s easy to see how civilization has benefited from more than 250 state-of-the-art licensed hydrocarbon processing technologies used by more than 700 refineries around the world that serve the needs of 8 billion of people living on earth with more than 6,000 products made from petroleum derivatives made from raw crude oil in refineries. None of these products were available to the company before 1900.
If it weren’t for the demands of society, it’s easy to understand that there would be no need to supply crude oil to refineries, to be turned into usable products if there weren’t demand for these products. As the public still does not want to be mandated and regulated in an inferior lifestyle like our predecessors a few hundred years ago, we have witnessed shortages and inflation of almost everything these days.
As the world is captivated by the environmental, social and governance (ESG) movement to divest from fossil fuels and plastic, i.e. bottles, plates and utensils, and with no known replacement in foreseeable future for 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 will examine, in simple terms, the origins of the modern refining and petrochemical industries that meet today’s demands for polyethylene, synthetic fibers, resins and jet engines:
- The hydrocarbon processing industry continued to evolve during the 1930s. Beginning 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), the exponential growth in oil demand during and after World War I (WWI), and how thermal cracking evolved into refining processing.
- Around the time (circa 1938), the alkylation process was commercialized in the United States. The process produced high octane aviation fuel, which saw a significant increase in demand during World War II (WW2). The process was then used in the 1950s to produce automotive fuel mixture components.
- In 1939, the first commercial-scale polyethylene plant went into operation on an industrial scale. Over the next few years, many polyethylene factories were put into operation, mainly to help the Allied war effort. polyethylene was widely used as an insulating material for radar cables during World War II. The material was lightweight, allowing Britain to fit radar in its fighter planes, providing a significant technical advantage in long-range air warfare. Because of this wartime advantage, the production of polyethylene for insulated wiring was highly secretive. It was not until after World War II that polyethylene production was commercialized. Within a few years, the production capacity of PE increased dramatically and would later become the most widely used thermoplastic in the world.
- Several new chemical discoveries took place in the 1930s which provided the world population with new products to improve the standard of living. These included the discovery and production of polystyrene, polyepoxide, nylon, polyester and neoprene.
- 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 dramatically in Germany and the United States during World War II to produce synthetic rubbers to aid in the war effort. In the late 1930s, Dow Chemical created polystyrene foam that expanded about 40 times. Dow would later market this discovery as expanded polystyrene, better known and marketed as Styrofoam.
- After the discovery of neoprene in 1931 for many applications (construction, automotive, medical equipment, fabrics, electrical equipment, textiles, among others) efforts were directed towards the production of synthetic fibers. In the mid-1930s, nylon first became a household product as women’s hosiery, then was used in the American war effort to produce parachutes and tents. In the coming decades, nylon will be widely used as a combination fabric in fashion and apparel, as well as several industrial applications – the global nylon industry market size is expected to reach over $46 billion. by the end of the 2020s.
- Research also led to the discovery of polyester in the early 1930s. However, the discovery of nylon pushed further research into polyester to the back burner. It was not until the late 1930s that work on synthetic fibers would finally 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. plastic, and today PET is the fourth most produced polymer after PE, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride.
- The DuPont Company is not done with the great polymer discoveries of the 1930s. Searching for chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants to find a better way to refrigerate food. Further investigation revealed that the substance was heat resistant and had low surface friction. DuPont polymer scientists determined that the tetrafluoroethylene gas had polymerized to produce the material, which DuPont would later market as Teflon.
- In 1936, Monsanto Chemical Co. produced melamine formaldehyde by polymerizing formaldehyde with melamine. This new substance was a thermosetting plastic which was very good at maintaining strength and shape. Melamine resins have been used for many different applications including utensils, plates, furniture, cups, bowls, laminates, toilet seats, automotive and epoxy coatings, among others. Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) is a transparent thermoplastic resin that is more transparent than glass and 6-7 times more resistant to breakage than glass. PMMA is also known as acrylic, acrylic glass, plexiglass or plexiglass, as well as by the trade names and trademarks Crylux, Plexiglas, Acrylite, Astariglas, Lucite, Perclax and Perspex, among others. This plastic is often used in sheet form as a lightweight or shatterproof alternative to glass. It can also be used as a casting resin, in inks and coatings, and for many other purposes.
- Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) is commonly used for prosthetic dental applications including the fabrication of artificial teeth, denture bases, dentures, fillings, orthodontic retainers, temporary or provisional crowns, and for the repair of dentures.
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Ron Stein is an engineer who, drawing on 25 years of project management and business development experience, launched PTS Advance in 1995. He is an author, engineer and energy expert who writes frequently on issues energy and savings.
Photo credit: courtesy CFACT