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Subject: Donald Campbell, World War II fuel engineer

New Jersey
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Date Posted: September 19, 2002 6:52:53 EDT

Donald L. Campbell, the last of the four engineers who, as World War II began, invented a cheaper and more efficient process to "crack" large hydrocarbons into smaller molecules useful for things like fuel and plastics, died on Saturday at a nursing home in Brick, N.J. He was 98.

He lived many years in Short Hills, N.J., before entering the nursing home in January, said his son, Michael Duff Campbell.

The new method multiplied the nation's ability to produce aviation fuel and synthetic rubber from a fixed amount of crude oil.

Mr. Campbell and three other engineers were working for the research unit of what is now Exxon Mobil when they perfected the process. In it, a catalyst moving through raw petroleum is used to ensure a steady and continuous breaking of the large hydrocarbon molecules into smaller ones. The result is a greater share of premium products, including aviation fuel, gasoline and heating oil.

In the three years after the successful testing of the new system in 1942 a time when America needed fuel for the war effort the process allowed a 6,000 percent increase in the nation's output of aviation fuel. It also led to a big increase in the production of synthetic rubber from petroleum at a time when supplies of natural rubber in Southeast Asia were threatened.

Harold L. Ickes, the United States petroleum administrator during the war, called the development "close to being the last nail in the coffin of the Axis."

In its October-November 1951 issue, Fortune magazine said that the subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey where Mr. Campbell worked at the time "came up with what many engineers consider the most revolutionary chemical-engineering achievement of the last 50 years."

The process is now used in refineries around the world, producing almost 500 million gallons of gasoline daily. The huge rise in postwar driving was fueled by the process, called fluid cat cracking by the oil industry, short for fluid catalytic cracking.

Donald Lewis Campbell was born on Aug. 5, 1904, in Clinton, Iowa. At 16 he placed first among 12 million entrants in a national essay contest, sponsored by the Department of War, on the benefits of joining the Army.

The judges included Gen. John J. Pershing. Mr. Campbell's essay began: "As Horace Greeley once said, `Young man, go West.' We now say, `Young man, join the Army.' "

He graduated at the head of his class at Iowa State University, where he majored in chemical engineering, and again at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a master's degree.

He worked for Exxon for 41 years and won 30 patents. He and the other engineers who developed the cracking process became legendary in their profession as the "four horsemen."

The others, who share the two critical patents, were Homer Z. Martin, Eger V. Murphree and Charles W. Tyson, all now dead.

Exxon wanted its cracking process to compete with one by a French inventor, Eugene Houdry. The owners of that patent were demanding $50 million for use of the process.

The Exxon engineers tried but failed to duplicate the French approach. Their breakthrough came when they discovered that a powdered catalyst mixed with air or oil vapor behaved exactly like a fluid.

This fluidlike mixture is propelled into the vessel where the chemical reaction takes place. In the reaction, carbon in the hydrocarbon attaches to the catalyst, weakening the catalyst's power.

The used catalyst is transported to a vessel where the carbon is burned off. The catalyst is then returned to the first vessel and used again. The result is a continuous process of cracking large hydrocarbon molecules into smaller ones.

Mr. Campbell wandered beyond his own profession for intellectual stimulation. He met regularly to discuss ideas with an interdisciplinary group that included academics, a documentary filmmaker and scientists from other companies, including physicists from Bell Labs. He also bid wildly but successfully in the bridge games he loved.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Duff Campbell; his son, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md.; his daughter, Mary Louise Macom of Bay Head, N.J.; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

His son said that Mr. Campbell never resented not getting rich from his invention, whose patent was registered in the company's name. "He was just proud to have worked with very smart men and to have accomplished something," he said.

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