IDEAS FOR RENT: The first fixed bed reforming unit history

By – Steve Metro


Following World War II, automobile production increased. The fuel demands of these new automobiles with higher compression engines required higher quality gasoline, subsequently exceeding what most refiners of the day could produce. UOP, already a leader in refining process technology, intensified its focus on catalytic reforming. In 1946, UOP began experimenting with a nobel metal, specifically platinum, as a catalyst. Platinum was very expensive back then, selling for $90 per troy ounce, and was quite a hurdle to overcome for a large commercial refinery application that required thousands of pounds of catalyst. By early 1947, a leading UOP scientist Vladimir Haensel applied platinum to a series of base materials, silica, silica-alumina, and finally alumina to form a catalytic substance. Experimenting with these catalysts at various temperatures and pressures, he used lab equipment to convert certain components of low-octane natural and straight-run gasoline to higher octane products. Of the three catalytic combinations, platinum on alumina seemed to produce the best result. Early catalyst formulations were highly susceptible to coking in the lab due to higher temperature operations needed to increase octane. One promising lab formulation contained 3 percent platinum! The application of a commercial catalyst was totally impractical from a cost and supply chain perspective. Gasoline was selling for 8 – 9 cents per gallon wholesale, so was very difficult to justify a catalytic reforming unit with several hundred thousand dollars of platinum, especially since regeneration technology had not yet been developed. Imagine a one cycle platinum reforming catalyst that you throw away!

Catalyst development continued in the lab. Chloroplatinic acid was developed by UOP as a means to impregnate the metal on alumina. Ammonia solution was used to remove the acidic compounds. High purity alumina was used to avoid contaminants that would kill the catalyst. The big breakthrough came by accident: traces of chlorine present during the catalyst prep stages remained, and this formulation showed immense promise after testing. The inexpensive and plentiful chlorine heightened the catalytic action and allowed for the reduction of platinum content that we all benefit from today.

By the fall of 1947, Haensel had devised a remarkable alumina based catalyst with one-tenth of one percent platinum by weight. It was so powerful that when low-octane gasoline was passed over it, 90% of the feed was converted to a product with an octane rating in the 80’s, well surpassing thermal reforming commonly commercially practiced at the time (70 percent conversion with mid-seventies octane numbers). Patents were filed by UOP on the new process and its name was selected. The “Platforming” process was so named to reflect the words platinum and reforming, and the image of elevated octane.

Much work remained to produce such a catalyst, develop the process design, and gain commercial acceptance of such an approach. The catalyst had a projected cost of ten dollars per pound, compared to other refinery catalyst that cost 15 to 60 cents per pound. In addition, regeneration had not yet been developed. A method for Pt recovery from used catalyst also had not yet been discovered. Hundreds of UOP scientists and engineers worked to advance the technology. In the spring of 1948 at the Western Refiners Association (Texas), UOP slipped in information about the new process during a few other scheduled items discussed. The industry’s response varied widely from “You guys must be crazy! We thought platinum, but who in their right mind would use a catalyst that costs that much?” to “Now you’ve got this Platforming process. Why do I have to go to a WPRA meeting in Texas to find out about it? I want it!”. It turns out the latter quote was from Old Dutch Refining, Muskegon, Michigan, USA who ended up signing the first UOP Platforming license. The unit was rapidly designed (revamp) and constructed by October 1948, at a cost of $700,000. The finished unit consisted of reactors which contained pelletized catalyst in fixed beds, charge stock heaters, product cooler, gas liquid separator, and a fractionating tower. About 30 pounds of platinum- more than $30,000 worth- had been used in the 4-1/2 tons of catalyst loaded. The catalyst was made in UOP’s Riverside facility in Illinois just outside of UOP’s headquarters, scaling up what had been produced in the lab. Today, the Riverside facility is still used for catalyst testing and manufacturing scale up activities.

The unit started up beautifully, but however, encountered a number of issues, one of which was hydrogen stress cracking of the reactors, later solved by using a thin high alloy steel cladding to line the reactor walls. An API delegation went to see the new unit in operation. Anticipating that some might come with more than innocent curiosity and might, in fact, try to steal some of the catalyst for analysis in their own laboratories, UOP rigged up a decoy. A gallon jar was filled with impotent pellets and labeled “Platforming catalyst”. The jar was placed half hidden in the Old Dutch control room. By the time the convention was over, the jar had nearly been emptied. Many innovations were subsequently developed on this first unit, including radial flow reactors and centerpipe screens. Eventually, this first fixed bed Platforming unit was producing 93 octane at a yield of nearly 95% for a run length totaling nine months. This is the fixed bed reforming story. Platforming is one of the many break-through technologies invented by UOP and commercialized with the help of many customers such as you. Together, we are at the forefront of new technology.

The preceding story is an excerpt from “IDEAS FOR RENT: THE UOP STORY”, 1994, a UOP Publication used to commemorate UOP’s 80th anniversary, authored by Charles Remsberg and Hal Higdon.