April 2022

100th Anniversary

History of the HPI: The 1950s: Capacity expansion, HDPE/PP, polycarbonate, computers and rocket science

The 1950s marked an evolution in the use of oil by nations around the world.

Nichols, Lee, Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

The 1950s marked an evolution in the use of oil by nations around the world. The processing of crude oil into fuels (e.g., gasoline and aviation gasoline) was imperative for economies to function—the use of oil increased significantly in many countries’ total energy mix. For example, the use of oil was imperative during reconstruction efforts in Western Europe post World War 2 (WW2). Petroleum products in Europe’s total energy mix increased from 10% at the end of WW2 to 21% in the mid-1950s and upwards to 45% in the 1960s.68

Across the world, nations were investing in new refining capacity to satisfy demand for refined fuels. One of the first refineries to startup post WW2 was the Ras Tanura refinery in Saudi Arabia—the refinery began operations approximately 1 mos (October 1945) after the end of the global conflict. By the early 1960s, the Ras Tanura refinery expanded production capacity from 50,000 bpd to 210,000 bpd.69 Additional refining capacity increased in other nations and regions, including India, southeast Asia, the U.S., Western Europe and the first refineries in Africa—two refineries were built in Algiers, Algeria and Durban, South Africa in 1954, followed by refinery construction in Angola, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal in the late 1950s/early 1960s.70

The 1950s was also a time of new technological discoveries for the refining and petrochemical industries. These included new refining and petrochemical processes to produce higher octane fuels, new derivatives of polyethylene (PE), the evolution of catalyst design, new chemical products, the adoption of computers in plant operations and the advancement of rocket fuels technology.

Catalytic research and development advances

After WW2, demand for high-octane gasoline increased globally—fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) capacity witnessed a significant capacity buildout in the 1940s to produce high-octane fuels for the Allied war effort. In turn, researchers developed new technologies to advance refining processes to produce higher octane fuels. For example, the U.S. added approximately 4 MMbpd of octane improvement capacity (e.g., catalytic reforming, isomerization, alkylation, hydrotreating)—directly or indirectly—during the 1950s.71 Another process—Platforming, invented in the late 1940s by Vladimir Haensel of UOP—was instrumental in the eventual removal of lead from gasoline. The process also used a platinum catalyst to produce gasoline with a higher octane rating, an unconventional approach at the time due to the high costs of precious metals. Around the same time, hydrodesulfurization was commercialized. Today, most refineries have one or more desulfurization units.

In the 1950s, FCC processing technology started to incorporate zeolite catalysts in the reaction. Due to their molecular structure, zeolite catalysts are extremely effective in the reaction process—they have higher performance at lower pressures. In the early 1960s, the effectiveness of zeolite catalysts was also instrumental in making the hydrocracking process economical—the modern hydrocracking process was developed at Standard Oil of California’s (now Chevron) Richmond refinery in 1959; the refinery also installed the first paraxylene unit in the U.S. in 1954. Within 10 yr, global hydrocracking capacity increased by a factor of 1,000, reaching approximately 1 MMbpd.72

High-density polyethylene, polypropylene and Ziegler-Natta

In 1951, J. Paul Hogan and Robert L. Banks were conducting catalyst research at Phillips Petroleum Co.’s research complex (FIG. 1) in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (U.S.). According to literature73, they set up an experiment using a nickel oxide catalyst but included small amounts of chromium oxide. In addition, they fed propylene, along with a propane carrier, into a pipe packed with catalyst. The result was that the chromium had produced a white, solid material. The two chemists had produced a new polymer: crystalline polypropylene (PP).73

FIG. 1. Phillips Research Complex. The inset shows the site of the development of PP. Photo courtesy of American Chemical Society and Phillips 66 (successor of Phillips Petroleum Co.).

 While using the same chromium catalyst, Hogan and Banks conducted research to produce a new ethylene polymer. Within a year, the two chemists discovered a new process that used far less pressure than the PE process invented by Imperial Chemical Industries in England. Note: The History of the HPI segment published in the February issue of Hydrocarbon Processing provided a detailed history of the discovery of PE in the 1930s. Hogan and Banks’ process required only a few hundred pounds per square inch (psi) vs. the PE process that required 20,000 psi–30,000 psi.73 The new process produced a high-density polyethylene (HDPE). The discovery of HDPE and PP launched the Phillips Petroleum Co. into the global plastics market. The company marketed their new discovery under the name Marlex. The new polyolefin product line became immensely popular as the basis for a toy developed by Wham-O. The toy maker used Marlex to produce a round plastic tube they sold under the name Hula Hoop.74

Around the same timeframe, more than 4,700 mi from the Bartlesville research lab, German chemist Karl Ziegler was experimenting with ethylene at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany. Ziegler’s goal was to synthesize PE of a high molecular weight. However, each reaction was unsuccessful due to contamination of nickel salt.75 After testing several different metals to counteract nickel salt contamination, he discovered titanium-based catalyst was immensely successful at accelerating the reaction process. Ziegler’s discovery led to a new process to produce PE without using high pressure and temperature. He also discovered that the produced PE consisted of very ordered, very long, straight-chain molecules (FIG. 2).76

FIG. 2. Karl Ziegler (center) with members of the Hercules group that commercialized HDPE as Hi-fax. Photo courtesy of Hercules Inc. The company was acquired by Ashland Global Specialty Chemicals Inc. in 2008.

Italian chemist Giulio Natta (FIG. 3) heard about Ziegler’s discovery while working at the Italian chemical company Montecatini. After Montecatini purchased the commercial rights to Ziegler’s new catalyst in Italy, Natta proceeded to conduct research on Ziegler’s work, focusing not on ethylene like Ziegler but on propylene polymerization. Through these endeavors, Natta successfully produced isotactic PP, which Montecatini began to produce on a commercial scale in 1957. By x-ray investigations, Natta was also able to determine the exact arrangement of chains in the lattice of the new crystalline polymers he discovered.77

FIG. 3. Giulio Natta was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 for his work on propylene polymerization. He shared the prize with Karl Ziegler. Photo courtesy of Maire Tecnimont.

Ziegler and Natta’s research and development on catalyst polymerization became known as Ziegler-Natta catalyst. For their work, both men were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963. This catalyst is still in use today for polymer production.

Through the work of Hogan, Banks, Ziegler, Natta and other professionals aiding in the research and development of these chemists, HDPE and PP have produced new products used extensively in many different applications, raising the standard of living for people around the globe. Since being discovered in the 1950s, both PP and HDPE have witnessed their market value surge over the past 70 yr, eclipsing $100 B and $70 B, respectively.

Commercialization of polycarbonate and emulsion technology

Although first discovered in the late 1890s, polycarbonate did not find commercial use until the late 1950s. The polymer was first created by German chemist Alfred Einhorn while working at the University of Munich in 1898. Dr. Einhorn is best known for synthesizing the local anesthetic procaine, which became known as Novocain, a numbing agent primarily used in dental procedures—prior to his discovery, cocaine was a commonly used local anesthetic which had undesirable side effects, including toxicity and addiction.78,79 According to literature, Dr. Einhorn was attempting to synthesize cyclic carbonates and produced polycarbonate by reacting hydroquinone with phosgene.78 However, no commercial use was found for this material.

Approximately 30 yr later, Wallace Carothers and his research team at DuPont created polycarbonates while working on the development of polyesters and nylon. An account of these discoveries—polyesters and nylon 66—are detailed in the History of the HPI segment published in the February issue of Hydrocarbon Processing. However, Carothers’ team did not find a commercial use for the produced polycarbonates.

In 1953, a commercial use for polycarbonates was discovered almost simultaneously in two different parts of the world—this year also marked the first iteration of the Petrochemicals Process Handbook (published in the November issue of Petroleum Refiner, the forerunner to Hydrocarbon Processing), which detailed emerging petrochemical processes. While researching polycarbonates at Bayer’s (the company’s Material Science division became Covestro in 2015) research and development laboratories in Uerdingen, Germany, Dr. Herman Schnell created the first linear polycarbonate.80 Approximately 1 wk later, Dr. Daniel Fox also discovered the same compound while conducting research on new wire-insulating material at General Electric (GE) in Schenectady, New York (U.S.).81 Both Schnell’s and Fox’s polymer were chemically the same but differed structurally—i.e., Schnell’s polymer was a linear polycarbonate and Fox’s polymer was a branched material.78,81

Both Bayer and GE filed for U.S. patents in 1955, leading to legal challenges on the rightful owner of the technology. Bayer was awarded the patent; however, the two companies agreed that the patent holder would grant a license for an appropriate royalty. This agreement allowed both companies to develop and market their own polycarbonate technology.82 Bayer began marketing their product in 1958 under the trade name Makrolon. GE began commercial production in 1960 and marketed their product under the name Lexan—the GE Plastics division was created in 1973, later being acquired by the Saudi Arabian chemical company Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC) in 2007; SABIC divested the subsidiary (known as the Polymershapes business) in 2016.83

Over the next nearly 70 yr, polycarbonate has evolved and is used in a multitude of products for everyday life. The tough plastic is used in many applications that require transparency and high impact resistance. These include in the production of windows, protective eye wear, electronic components (e.g., electrical and telecommunications hardware), construction materials, materials within the automotive and aviation industries, and other niche market applications.81

The late 1940s/early 1950s also witnessed the advancement of acrylic emulsion technology. The technology was invented by scientists at Röhm and Hass—the company, founded in Esslingen, Germany by Dr. Otto Röhm and Otto Haas in 1907, invented Plexiglas (this discovery is detailed in the February issue of Hydrocarbon Processing).

To find a new product to market, the company’s research department, led by Harry Neher, conducted experiments on acrylic monomer synthesis. The research built on earlier work by I. G. Farben (German chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate) scientist Walter Reppe. After modifications, Neher invented a new semi-catalytic process called the F Process, which resulted in the production of vast qualities of cheap acylate monomers.84 However, the company did not know exactly what to do with their newfound discovery.

One idea came from two scientists at the company, Benjamin Kline and Gerald Brown. They suggested the aqueous emulsion technology could make a great house paint.84 At the time, most paints were solvent paints; however, they emitted an odor, were toxic and flammable, and hard to clean up. In 1951, Röhm and Hass built an F Process plant in Houston, Texas (U.S.) and produced their first paint emulsion product in 1952—it was named Rhoplex AC-33. The product had several benefits vs. solvent-based paints: it had a low odor, was easy to clean up, had a resistance to cracking and was environmentally friendly.

Röhm and Hass perfected the product over the next two decades, introducing a range of exterior and interior paint products with different finishes (e.g., flat, semi-gloss and gloss). By the early 1970s, Rhoplex AC-33 surpassed Plexiglas sales for the company and created a new line of acrylic paints to rival solvent-based paints.

Closing the loop: The computer-integrated manufacturing era begins

On April 4, 1959, Texaco started operations on the first direct digital control computer at a refinery. The system—a Thompson Ramo Wooldridge (TRW) RW-300 computer—was installed on the company’s 1,600-bpd polymerization unit at the Port Arthur refinery (Texas, U.S.). The initiation of this system “closed the loop” in the first fully automatic, computer-controlled industrial process.85

The installation of the system began several years before startup. TRW and Texaco engineers worked for more than 2.5 yr on a feasibility study for converting the plant to full automation. The 318-pg report provided robust detail on all actions the system would have to monitor. This analysis provided a basis for Texaco engineers to design the instrumentation and control system for the unit.86 The initial goal of the computer system—which totaled approximately $300,000 (computer, instrumentation, labor and other equipment),86 nearly $2.9 MM today after adjusting for inflation—was to raise the plant’s efficiency by 6%–10%.

The work of the computer was described succinctly by Texaco’s Chief Process Engineer, Charles Richker. “It gets an analysis of incoming gas and outgoing gas; it senses and measures pressure, flows and temperatures; it calculates catalyst activity; then it weighs all these together and decides what the processing unit should do to get the most product for the least cost,” said Richker. “Finally, it sets the controls and rechecks its figuring.”86 The computer accomplished these tasks in a matter of seconds.

The RW-300 computer was able to accomplish more measurements, faster than refining personnel could ever hope to achieve. From literature, for example, the computer could read dozens of recorder-controllers that indicated pressure, temperature and flow, and then relate the readings that indicated the level of activity of the reaction or condition of the catalyst. The computer could then calculate the complex interrelationships of the process, all in time to reset the controls to keep the plant operating at maximum efficiency. The computer could conduct these readings every 5 min, 24 hr a day (FIG. 4).86

FIG. 4. The RW-300 computer system, foreground, was used to enhance operations at Texaco’s Port Arthur refinery’s 1,600-bpd polymerization plant. In the background, Texaco engineers and TRW personnel check control charts. Photo courtesy of Business Week.

The success of the computer system led to the adoption of numerous installations over the next several years. The second RW-300 computer for the processing industry was installed at Monsanto’s Chocolate Bayou, Texas (U.S.) petrochemical plant in 1960, followed by B. F. Goodrich’s chemical plant in Calvert City, Kentucky (U.S.). Several other installations of the RW-300 occurred in the early 1960s, including at BASF’s plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany; Gulf Oil Co.’s catalytic cracking plant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (U.S.); Petroleum Chemicals’ ethylene plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana (U.S.); among others.87

IBM introduced its first multi-purpose industrial control system—the IBM 1710—in March 1961. The computer—which cost $111,000–$135,000 ($1 MM–$1.27 MM today after adjusting for inflation)—was used for a variety of sampling and the interpretation of data in the processing and manufacturing industries, including quality control, industrial process study and process optimization.88 The system was first installed at American Oil’s Whiting refinery in Indiana (U.S.) in 1961, followed by additional installations at Standard Oil of California’s El Segundo refinery in Richmond, California (U.S.) and DuPont’s acrylonitrile pilot plant in Gibbstown, New Jersey (U.S.) in the same year.86,87

From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, more than 40 computer control systems were installed in the chemical and petroleum sectors.87 Although initially expensive, the use of computer systems revolutionized hydrocarbon processing operations and provided significant benefits to operating personnel and plant production. This period—later known as the computer-integrated manufacturing era for the hydrocarbon processing industry—transitioned the refining and chemical industries into a new computer age. Computer systems would continue to evolve over the next several decades, providing new enhancements and benefits along the way.

Rocket designs/fuels evolve, and the space race begins

Production of various fuels and gases have been instrumental in the development of space exploration and satellite technologies, especially in the construction of artificial satellites (e.g., Kevlar, invented in the 1960s by DuPont, help protect satellites in orbit from the harsh conditions of space) and propulsion. Although the origins of rocket propulsion go back several centuries (the Chinese used tubes filled with gunpowder—called “arrows of flying fire”—to repel the Mongols during the battle of Kai-Keng in 1232),89 modern rocket propellant technology traces its roots to the mid-1900s.

The era of modern rocketry began with theories derived from the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. His work Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices—published in 1903—put forth the idea of both utilizing rockets for space flight and using liquid propellant for rocket propulsion.90 These ideas and his research on the subject inspired future scientists that would revolutionize rocket fuel development over the next several decades. For this, Tsiolkovsky is known as the father of modern astronautics.

The first successful liquid-fueled rocket test was conducted in 1926 by Robert Goddard. Throughout his research, Goddard discovered that using liquid fuel provided more acceleration vs. other forms of propulsion, such as gunpowder. His rocket design had the combustion chamber and nozzle at the top of a frame made up of two vertical tubes, which would then carry the liquid fuel (comprised of liquid oxygen and gasoline) from the tanks at the bottom to ignite the rocket.91,92

FIG. 5. Goddard standing next to his rocket. On March 16, 1926, he successfully launched the world’s first liquid-propellant rocket. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

On March 16, 1926, in Auburn, Massachusetts (U.S.), Goddard’s rocket blasted off the launchpad. The rocket flew for 2.5 sec and reached an altitude of 41 ft.91 The launch proved that liquid fuels could be used to propel rockets, setting the stage for the evolution of rocket engine designs, which would eventually lead to the use of satellites and space exploration.

Although Goddard’s discovery was revolutionary, he kept his findings mostly secret. His work was barely known until the U.S. Smithsonian published his theory A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. However, several media outlets openly mocked his theories. For example, the New York Times dismissed Goddard’s theories as lacking basic knowledge learned in high schools—the publication printed a correction in July 1969 as the Apollo 11 mission launched on its historic mission to the moon.91

In the late 1920s, the world’s first large-scale experimental rocket program began under the leadership of the German rocket technology pioneer Fritz von Opel (nicknamed Rocket Fritz) and other associates, including Max Valier, who was one of the founders of the German Spaceflight Society (Verein für Raumschiffahrt).93 The Opel RAK significantly advanced rocket and aviation technology, especially in propulsion. In 1928, the group developed its first liquid-fueled rocket, which used benzol—a coal-tar product consisting mainly of benzene and toluene—as fuel and nitrogen tetroxide as the oxidizer.93

The research and testing completed on Opel RAK led to the development of Germany’s V-2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile powered by a liquid-propellant (liquid oxygen and ethyl alcohol) rocket engine. After WW2, several nations used the V-2 rocket technology to develop their own military missile programs, as well as advance space exploration. These initiatives were supported by hydrocarbon processing companies. For example, Air Products was commissioned by the U.S. to build plants that could supply large quantities of liquid oxygen and nitrogen to support the country’s emerging missile and space program.94 After Russia successfully launched Sputnik into space in 1957 (the satellite used kerosene T-1 as a fuel and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer95), Air Products was awarded a contract to supply liquid hydrogen to the U.S. Air Force—and later to NASA—to advance the country’s rocket technology to compete against the Soviets during the Cold War and space race. The U.S. eventually created Rocket Propellant-1, which is a highly refined form of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

These fuels aided the advancement of rocket technology, leading humans to break the boundaries of space and place satellites into geosynchronous orbit, significantly evolving the way the world communicates, navigates and explores not only Earth but the distant cosmos. These advancements would not have been possible without the fuels and products produced from the hydrocarbon processing sector.


68 Johnstone, P. and C. McLeish, “World wars and the age of oil: Exploring directionality in deep energy transitions,” Elsevier, September 2020, online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7471716/

69 Saudi Aramco, “A billion barrels ago,” Aramco World, May 1962, online: https://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/196205/a.billion.barrels.ago.htm

70 MBendi, “Africa: Oil and gas—Oil refining overview,” online: https://mbendi.co.za/indy/oilg/ogrf/af/p0005.htm#:~:text=In%20the%2050%20years%20between,Durban%20(Socony%2FMobil)

71 Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, “Petroleum refinery plant and equipment expenditures, 1950–1958,” May 1959, online: https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/files/docs/publications/frbsfreview/pages/66126_1955-1959.pdf

72 Scott, J. W. and J. R. Kittrell, “Trends in the development of the modern hydrocracking process,” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research, 1969.

73 American Chemical Society, “Discovery of polypropylene and the development of a new high-density polyethylene,” 1999, online: https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/polypropylene/discovery-of-polypropylene-and-development-of-high-density-polyethylene-commemorative-booklet.pdf

74 ConocoPhillips, “Our history: 1950–1969,” online: https://www.conocophillips.com/about-us/our-history/1969-1950/

75 Wikipedia, “Karl Ziegler,” online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Ziegler

76 Science History Institute, “Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta,” online: https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/karl-ziegler-and-giulio-natta

77 The Nobel Prize, “Giulio Natta,” NoblePrize.org, online: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1963/natta/biographical/

78 Sepe, M., “Tracing the history of polymeric materials: Part 11,” Plastics Technology, September 2021, online: https://www.ptonline.com/articles/tracing-the-history-of-polymeric-materials-part-11

79 Wikipedia, “Alfred Einhorn,” online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Einhorn

80 Bayer, “History of polycarbonate at Bayer,” online: http://www.interwall.pe/sites/default/files/PCS_History.pdf

81 Wikipedia, “Polycarbonate,” online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polycarbonate#History

82 Caliendo, H., “History of BPA,” Packaging Digest, June 28, 2012, online: https://www.packagingdigest.com/food-safety/history-bpa

83 Reuters, “Saudi’s SABIC sells Polymershapes unit to U.S. firm,” September 7, 2016, online: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sabic-polymers-idUSKCN11D0KX

84 American Chemical Society, “Acrylic emulsion technology: From plastics to paints, it changed our world,” September 15, 2008, online: https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/acrylicemulsion/acrylic-emulsion-technology-commemorative-booklet.pdf

85 Miller, P., D. Hill and D. Woll, “Process control in the HPI: A not-so-sentimental journey,” Hydrocarbon Processing, July 2012.

86 Business Week, “Texaco closes the loop,” McGraw-Hill Publication, April 4, 1959.

87 Laspe, C. G., “Onstream computers: An example and some generalities,” Chemical Engineering Education, September 1963.

88 IBM, “IBM 1710 industrial control system,” online: https://www.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/vintage/vintage_4506VV4021.html

89 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “Brief history of rockets,” online: https://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/TRC/Rockets/history_of_rockets.html

90 Wikipedia, “Konstantin Tsiolkovsky,” online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Tsiolkovsky#Scientific_achievements

91 Space Center Houston, “Flashback Friday: Goddard launches first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926,” March 22, 2019, online: https://spacecenter.org/rocket-man/

92 Neufeld, M., “Robert Goddard and the first liquid-propellant rocket,” U.S. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, March 16, 2016, online: https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/robert-goddard-and-first-liquid-propellant-rocket#:~:text=Ninety%20years%20ago%20today%2C%20on,itself%20off%20the%20launch%20rack

93 Wikipedia, “Fritz von Opel,” online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_von_Opel

94 Air Products, “Company History, 1940s–2010s,” online: https://airproducts.uz/EN/pdf/company-history.pdf

95 Strickland, J., “How Sputnik worked,” How Stuff Works, online: https://science.howstuffworks.com/sputnik.htm

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