In 1913, when Henry Ford doubled his workforce and opened the world's biggest factory with the world's first moving automobile assembly line at Highland Park, Michigan, the Standard Oil Company of California set up an experimental plant in Pico Canyon to turn natural gas into gasoline. Oil refiners everywhere needed to develop new ways to produce more gasoline from petroleum — and quickly.
Only about 20 percent of the product from distillation refining was gasoline, the light-weight fuel internal combustion engines needed. That was OK before the Automobile Age, when kerosene for illumination was the chief product. But now, without better technologies to increase gasoline output, the nascent auto industry would sputter.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the breakthrough came that same year (1913) when two chemical engineers at the Standard Oil Company of Indiana, William Burton and Robert Humphreys, invented thermal cracking — a process for adding heat and pressure to the refining process to "crack" kerosene molecules into gasoline molecules, which have fewer carbon atoms.
Standard Oil's Pico Canyon plant used two 80-hp gas engine-driven compressors to convert natural gas to liquid. In 1914, Standard pulled the plug, deeming the handling and transportation of the volatile product too dangerous. Railroads were refusing to carry it. Natural gas conversion to gasoline was impractical until much later. Germany used a primitive method during World War II, and in subsequent decades, more efficient methods were developed by engineers at Texas A&M and other universities. In the early 21st Century, there are some gas-to-liquid plants overseas.
During Charles E. Sitzman's superintendency of the Pico Oil Field (1927-1937), Standard Oil experimented with a different method of increasing gasoline output. Local historian Stan Walker writes (2019): "The Standard Gasoline Company (a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of California) plant was operating in Newhall [Pico] with a daily capacity of 1,000 gallons. The method of extraction was absorption, not compression, which was the process being used in the 1913-14 plant."
By the 1930s, the compression method had "declined steadily in relative importance" (U.S. Bureau of Mines circular, "Natural-Gasoline Plants in the United States," January 1, 1932).
Oil field superintendent Charles E. Sitzman at the back of Pico Canyon. The gasoline plant is behind him to the viewer's left. Sitzman collection, SCV Historical Society. Click to enlarge.
Absorption is a distillation process that "absorbs" gasoline out of natural gas. A 1923 publication, "Gas-Age Record" (Robbins Publishing Co., New York), describes the process — which, incidentally, was first used in the petroleum industry in 1913:
The process is very much like that of extracting benzol, toluol and other products from gas made by the destructive distillation of coal. The gas is brought in contact with an oil heavier than gasoline, such as petroleum, and distilled to about 34 deg. Baume to absorb the gasoline from it, the distillation separating the gasoline from the oil. The absorbent oil is used over again, making the process continuous.
The absorption process is limited mainly to dry natural gas containing less than 1 gal. of gasoline per 1000 cu. ft. of gas.[...]
One of the latest absorption processes for extracting gasoline from natural gas is the charcoal process. This process is new in that a very porous charcoal (activated charcoal), like that developed during the war for use in gas masks, is used as the absorbent medium. The charcoal is finely ground to an 8-14 mesh and is placed in absorbers, three to a plant. The natural gas is passed through one absorber until the charcoal therein has reached its capacity in absorbing the gasoline. The charcoal absorbs about 15 per cent of its own weight of gasoline. The gas is next switched to a second absorber and the first quantity of charcoal treated with saturated steam, distilling out the gasoline. The steam and gasoline vapor passes out of the absorber through water-cooled condenser coils where the vapor is condensed. By means of applying different temperatures, the gasoline and water are separated. One absorber is, therefore, always absorbing, one is distilling and one is cooling. This process results in a high percentage of recovery and a product having a low-vapor pressure for a given gravity.
[...] Absorption gasoline, because of a distillation step in the process, is a more stable gasoline and does not evaporate so readily. It is for this reason that it commands a higher price than the compression gasoline.
According to the 1923 publication, three absorption plants were operating at that time, with 1,000-gal. daily capacity: two in the United States and one in Argentina. Pico Canyon was not yet one of them.
Click to enlarge.
Places Ban on Gas Gasoline.
Standard Decides No Longer to Manufacture It.
Los Angeles Sunday Times | July 26, 1914.
Declaring conditions unsatisfactory for the manufacture of the product in this State, the Standard Oil Company has decided to abandon manufacturing gasoline from natural gas. The company's plant at Newhall has been dismantled.
"About a year ago this company decided to install in the oil fields at Newhall (Pico Canyon), Cal., a compressor for manufacturing gasoline from natural gas," says the Standard in its bulletin for July, just issued. "A short time after a complete plant was installed and in working order.
"Many tests and experiments have been made with the gasoline produced by this compressor to determine, if possible, some safe means of transporting it to the company's refinery at El Segundo for rerunning. Owing to the great volatility and high vapor tension test of casing-head gasoline produced from California natural gas, which makes the product at all times a dangerous one to handle, the company has decided to abandon the prospect of making gasoline from natural gas in California, and has dismantled its plant."
The company also has another plant in the Coyote Hills district [Fullerton], and as this is only a very short distance from the refinery, it will probably be continued. It is understood, however, that the Standard will undertake the construction of no more plants in the State.
Several companies before the Standard have encountered serious difficulties in getting their compressor product to market on account of its highly explosive character. The Turner Oil Company in Coalinga, for instance, recently has been having a fight with the railroads to get them to carry its output from Coalinga field to San Francisco, and other concerns have had a similar experience.
There are now produced in the State daily over 20,000 gallons of casing-head gasoline, which has to be mixed with engine distillate or other low-grade product in order to be brought down to a gravity, available for commercial use. In this way the production of 20,000 gallons is expanded to 50,000 to 60,000 gallons a day.
The advent of the product, which has been on the market only about two or three years, has been largely the cause of the present price-cutting war, and the big companies would be glad to see it abolished as a market factor. The Standard has always looked on the product with disfavor and was among the very last to construct plants for manufacturing it in this State.
The abandonment of the plant has followed very closely on the heels, and by some is believed to be partly the result, of the development of a new substitute for ordinary gasoline, which the Standard recently has put on the market at a reduced price, apparently in an effort to fight casing-head gasoline.