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Donald Campbell, 98; Fuel Refining Pioneer

September 20, 2002|From a Times Staff Writer

Donald L. Campbell, one of four engineers who developed a process that revolutionized the petroleum industry by turning fuels into a variety of useful products, died Saturday at a nursing home in Brick, N.J. He was 98.

Campbell was known within the industry as one of the legendary "Four Horsemen" of what is now the Exxon Research and Engineering Co. Along with Homer Z. Martin, Eger V. Murphree and Charles Wesley Tyson, he invented a process called fluid catalytic cracking in 1942 that is considered one of the most important chemical engineering achievements of the 20th century. It became essential to refinery operations by increasing the yield of high-octane gasolines, such as jet fuel and heating oils, from crude oil.

In the 1930s, researchers had found that a finely powdered catalyst would split hydrocarbon molecule chains into smaller bits that could then be distilled to produce fuel-based products. Campbell and his colleagues refined the process to ensure steady and continuous cracking.

Standard Oil of New Jersey, the company that later became Exxon, opened the first commercial catalytic cracking facility in 1942, just after the United States had entered World War II and was facing a shortage of aviation fuel.

Historians say the catalytic cracking process Campbell helped develop enabled the nation's petroleum industry to increase production of aviation gasoline by 6,000% over the next three years and played a decisive role in the Allies' air victories in World War II.

It also helped usher in the age of the automobile and sped the development of plastics, synthetic rubbers, new fabrics, cosmetics and other products.

The catalytic cracking process produces almost half a billion gallons of gasoline daily, about half of the world's supply, according to the North American Catalysis Society.

Campbell was born in Clinton, Iowa, and attended Iowa State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School. He worked at Exxon for 41 years, more than half of which he spent in the research and engineering division. When he retired in 1969, he held 30 patents. In 1999, he received the U.S. Department of Commerce's Ronald H. Brown American Innovator Award.

Campbell is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; two children; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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