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Fueling a revolutionIn 1913, William Burton was awarded the most important patent in the history of petroleum refining. The patent – for thermal cracking – doubled the amount of gasoline refineries produce from a single barrel of crude oil.
Refining is all about turning crude oil into products people can use – like motor fuels. But in the early 1900s, there weren’t many products for anyone to use. Our grandparents and great-grandparents lived without any modern conveniences – especially cars.
A big reason was that gasoline was considered just a byproduct of the slow and inefficient distillation process, which used heat to pump hot liquids and vapors upwards into a distillation tower. As vapors rose, they cooled or condensed at different levels, where they were collected in trays as different fractions or cuts of crude.
This old-fashioned distillation process worked well enough to keep up with our ancestors’ demand for kerosene, waxes and other products. It just didn’t produce much gasoline.
The Model T fadBut a scientist working for BP legacy company Standard Oil (Indiana) had a hunch that Model Ts might prove more than just a passing fad. William Merriam Burton (1865-1954) was convinced demand for gasoline eventually would overtake that for kerosene.
In 1911, the year it separated from the Standard Oil Trust, BP legacy company Standard Oil Co. (Indiana) sold 88 percent of the gasoline and kerosene used in the Midwest. In 1912, it opened its first gas service station in Minneapolis, Minn.
Burton felt Standard needed to do something about its unsatisfactory distillation process just in case a certain Henry Ford in Detroit was right about horses and buggies and another technological breakthrough called the assembly line He assembled a team of the world’s finest minds. Working under downright dangerous conditions with no precedent to guide them, Burton’s group reinvented the refining process and made possible America’s hundred-year era of affordable, abundant gasoline.
Their invention? Thermal cracking. Burton’s group doubled the amount of gasoline refineries produce from a single barrel of crude oil.
The company’s first chemistHowever, Burton’s brilliance today is long forgotten by drivers who take their cars seriously but their gas stations for granted. The visionary who sent buggies to the junk heap and horses back to stables arrived at Standard Oil’s Whiting refinery in 1890 not as an engineer but as the company’s first chemist.
The refinery was under construction. The refinery manager informed the 25-year-old Burton he was expected to bring his own supplies. Chemists, like carpenters, were expected to carry their own kits.
Burton’s first job was overseeing the installation of equipment to remove sulfur from the high-sulfur Lima, Ohio crude Whiting was built to process. By 1896, he licked that problem and became head of the refinery.
Only four automobilesThat year, only four automobiles operated in the entire United States. Burton’s refinery produced mainly kerosene, and gasoline was a waste product. It represented only 15 to 18 percent of a barrel of crude as it came out of distillation in Burton’s refinery. But Burton knew horses’ days were numbered.
By 1909, he was general manager of manufacturing for Standard Oil. At heart, he remained a researcher. Burton hired Robert M. Humphreys, Francis M. Rogers and others away from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University so they could continue his work at the Whiting Refinery.
Burton was convinced Standard should try to increase the yield of gasoline beyond the amount refiners could produce by merely distilling crude oil – that is, by physically separating the products it contained. When heated to a fairly high temperature, he knew a heavy petroleum fraction would decompose into a dense liquid or coke plus a lighter product that would boil in the gasoline range.
Cracking large moleculesHe asked Humphreys and Rogers to work on cracking the larger molecules of heavier oil into the smaller molecules of gasoline.
The next 16 months at the Whiting Refinery were a hectic series of small triumphs and big reversals. Heat alone was not the answer. Burton’s scientists tried using catalysts briefly – coke, stone, and rubber – but the results were not promising. They increased pressures to promote the cracking reaction. Burton, fearing the experiment was becoming unsafe, halted the research.
Electric welding was still a decade away. Burton’s stills were made of riveted, steel plates prone to burst at the seams under high pressure. Pumps that could safely handle hot oil had yet to be developed. His scientists were working with homemade equipment, high temperatures and combustible materials at great personal risk to their own safety.
Fortunately, curiosity got the better of them. Research resumed, and gas oil was heated from 650 to 850 degrees Fahrenheit at higher and higher pressures. Burton’s experimental still creaked and groaned. His team caulked and recaulked seams and rivets.
Finally, at 75 pounds per square inch, Burton’s team hit their mark. They thermally cracked the crude to produce satisfactory quantifies of gasoline.
Breakthrough of a lifetimeDecades later, in charge of much more sophisticated refineries, Standard Oil Executive Vice President Richard Leet described this feat as still amazing: “Going higher could have been fatal. They calculated they had a 400 percent safety factor based on the strength of steel at ordinary temperatures.
Actually, at the high temperatures they were using, the safety factor in the original Burton stills was only about 50 percent. But, by determining optimum operating conditions in a semi-commercial-sized still, Burton had the breakthrough of a lifetime in hand.”
In 1911, Burton appeared before Standard’s board of directors in New York City to ask permission to build the first six batteries of commercial stills. There were 600,000 automobiles on American roads by then.
The rest, as they say, is refining history. In 1913, Burton was awarded the most important patent in the history of petroleum refining. The patent – for thermal cracking – covered the cracking of gas oil into gasoline.
Inventors Hall of FameTwenty years ago, Burton was inducted into the National Council of Patent Law Associations and the Patent and Trademark Office of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Gasoline products that evolved from Burton’s humble stills proved so technically brilliant and commercially successful that when BP decided to increase its marketing presence in the United States, it purchased Amoco, formerly Standard Oil Company (Indiana).
BP still markets Amoco-branded gasolines developed by Burton’s heirs at Standard Oil. In surveys, most Americans still identify the Amoco brand with the highest quality product available on U.S. highways.
Burton may be gone, but his vision still fuels the American economy.