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Eugène Jules Houdry (Domont, April 18, 1892 – Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, July 18, 1962) was a French, later naturalised American, mechanical engineer (graduated from École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers in 1911) who invented catalytic cracking of petroleum feed stocks.
Born near Paris, France, on April 18, 1892, Eugene Houdry was the son of a wealthy steel manufacturer. He studied mechanical engineering at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Chalons-sur-Marne. He graduated in 1911, earning the French government's gold medal for the highest scholastic achievement in his class. He was captain of his school's soccer team, which won the championship of France that same year.
Houdry joined his father's business, but left for military training right before the outbreak of World War I. He served in the French army as a lieutenant in the tank corps and in 1917 was seriously wounded in the battle of Juvincourt, winning the Croix de Guerre for his actions and later becoming a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
After the war, Houdry rejoined his father at Houdry et Fils, but by 1922 was making his way in the field of catalytic processes for the conversion of coal and lignite to gasoline. His interest in high-octane gasoline was fueled by his avid interest in automobile engines and in road racing, where he competed in a Bugatti racing car.
In America from 1930
Houdry moved to America in 1930.
Houdry was outspoken in his opposition to wartime collaboration with the Germans by the French Vichy government of Marshall Henri Pétain. On May 3, 1941, the Vichy government declared that Houdry had lost his French citizenship. He then became president of the U.S. chapter of “France Forever” :an organization dedicated to the support of General Charles de Gaulle, the nominal head of the French government in exile and in January 1942, he became a United States citizen. His two sons, Jacques and Pierre, served in the United States Army during World War II, and Houdry directed his efforts toward industrial processes crucial to the war effort.
Houdry's colorful life was full of great ambitions. His unusually productive career was characterized by unique foresight, bold imagination, creative leadership, persistence and, above all, action. Houdry's contributions to catalytic technology were recognized by numerous awards, including the Potts Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1948, the Perkin Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry (American Section) in 1948, the E. V. Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry of the American Chemical Society in 1962, and posthumous election to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990. He was awarded honorary Doctor of Science degrees by Pennsylvania Military College in 1940 and by Grove City College in 1943. In 1967, the Catalysis Society of North America established the Houdry Award in Applied Catalysis.
Houdry died on July 18, 1962, at Upper Darby, Pennsylvania at the age of 70, survived by his sons and his wife, Genevieve Quilleret. At that time he was actively working on creative ideas for using catalytic processes to improve human health.
Coal to gasoline
He originally focused on using lignite (brown coal) as a feedstock, but switched to using heavy liquid tars after moving to the United States in 1930. Although others had experimented with catalysts for this purpose, they were stymied by the fact that the catalyst ceased to work after a time. Houdry diagnosed the nature of the problem and developed a method to regenerate the catalyst. The first Houdry unit was built at Sun Oil's Marcus Hook, PA oil refinery in 1937. Many more units were built by the 1940s and were instrumental for US wartime aviation gasoline production. Among others at the company who helped Houdry in the development of the catalytic cracking process was Alex Golden Oblad.
The process was further developed by two MIT engineers, Warren K. Lewis and Edwin R. Gilliland, under contract to Standard Oil of New Jersey, now ExxonMobil. They developed the process into fluid catalytic cracking, which solved the problem of having to shut down the process to burn the coke off the catalyst by using a continuously circulating fluidized catalyst made of a fine zeolite powder. This process is still in widespread use, especially in the US where gasoline is in high demand compared to other refined products.
Houdry later became interested in automotive catalysts, and the catalytic converter was one of approximately 100 patents that he received, but nothing came of it until the 1970s because the tetraethyl lead that was still in use in the 1950s and 1960s poisoned the catalyst.
In addition to the process for high-octane gasoline, Houdry also invented a catalytic process for the production of butadiene from the butane gas derived from crude oil production. Butadiene became an important resource during World War II. It was one of the two components used in the production of synthetic rubber.
After World War II, Houdry formed the Oxy-Catalyst Company and turned his attention to reducing the health risks associated with the increasing amounts of automobile and industrial air pollution. His generic catalytic converter, which greatly reduced the amount of carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons in automobile exhausts, was granted U.S. Patent 2,742,437 in 1956. Today, catalytic converters made by various companies are standard devices on all American cars.
- Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries Page 336 Rodney P. Carlisle - 2004 "Eugène Houdry, a French engineer, examined a process developed by E.A. Proudhomme, a pharmacist from Nice, to make gasoline from coal. Houdry established a laboratory and worked with Proudhomme to perfect the method and to study catalysts ..
- "Eugene Houdry". Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- Bowden, Mary Ellen (1997). "Eugene Houdry". Chemical achievers : the human face of the chemical sciences. Philadelphia, PA: Chemical Heritage Foundation. pp. 122–123. ISBN 9780941901123.