Cracking mechanism of higher hydrocarbons Fuel and Combustion

Apr 27 • General • 4268 Views • No Comments on Cracking mechanism of higher hydrocarbons Fuel and Combustion

Cracking mechanism of higher hydrocarbons (Fuel & Combustion).

Cracking is the name given to breaking up large hydrocarbon molecules into smaller and more useful bits. This is achieved by using high pressures and temperatures without a catalyst, or lower temperatures and pressures in the presence of a catalyst.

The source of the large hydrocarbon molecules is often the naphtha fraction or the gas oil fraction from the fractional distillation of crude oil (petroleum). These fractions are obtained from the distillation process as liquids, but are re-vaporised before cracking.

There isn’t any single unique reaction happening in the cracker. The hydrocarbon molecules are broken up in a fairly random way to produce mixtures of smaller hydrocarbons, some of which have carbon-carbon double bonds. One possible reaction involving the hydrocarbon C15H32 might be:

C15H32->2C2H(ethene ) + C6H18(propene) + C8H18(octane)

The ethene and propene are important materials for making plastics or producing other organic chemicals. The octane is one of the molecules found in petrol (gasoline).


1.Catalytic cracking


Modern cracking uses zeolites as the catalyst. These are complex aluminosilicates, and are large lattices of aluminium, silicon and oxygen atoms carrying a negative charge. They are, of course, associated with positive ions such as sodium ions. You may have come across a zeolite if you know about ion exchange resins used in water softeners.The alkane is brought into contact with the catalyst at a temperature of about 500°C and moderately low pressures.

The zeolites used in catalytic cracking are chosen to give high percentages of hydrocarbons with between 5 and 10 carbon atoms – particularly useful for petrol (gasoline). It also produces high proportions of branched alkanes and aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene.

The zeolite catalyst has sites which can remove a hydrogen from an alkane together with the two electrons which bound it to the carbon. That leaves the carbon atom with a positive charge. Ions like this are called carbonium ions (or carbocations). Reorganisation of these leads to the various products of the reaction.The popular catalytic cracking process are Hydrocracking & steam cracking.


Hydrocracking is a catalytic cracking process assisted by the presence of an elevated partial pressure of hydrogen gas. Similar to the hydrotreater, the function of hydrogen is the purification of the hydrocarbon stream from sulfur and nitrogen hetero-atoms.

The products of this process are saturated hydrocarbons; depending on the reaction conditions (temperature, pressure, catalyst activity) these products range from ethane, LPG to heavier hydrocarbons consisting mostly of isoparaffins. Hydrocracking is normally facilitated by a bifunctional catalyst that is capable of rearranging and breaking hydrocarbon chains as well as adding hydrogen to aromatics and olefinsto produce naphthenes and alkanes.

Major products from hydrocracking are jet fuel and diesel, while also high octane rating gasoline fractions and LPG are produced.  All these products have a very low content of sulfur and other contaminants.


Steam cracking is a petrochemical process in which saturated hydrocarbons are broken down into smaller, often unsaturated, hydrocarbons. It is the principal industrial method for producing the lighter alkenes (or commonly olefins), including ethene (or ethylene) and propene (or propylene).

In steam cracking, a gaseous or liquid hydrocarbon feed like naphtha, LPG or ethanei s diluted with steam and briefly heated in a furnace without the presence of oxygen. Typically, the reaction temperature is very high, at around 850°C, but the reaction is only allowed to take place very briefly. In modern cracking furnaces, the residence time is reduced to milliseconds to improve yield, resulting in gas velocities faster than the speed of sound. After the cracking temperature has been reached, the gas is quickly quenched to stop the reaction in a transfer line heat exchanger or inside a quenching header using quench oil


In thermal cracking, high temperatures (typically in the range of 450°C to 750°C) and pressures (up to about 70 atmospheres) are used to break the large hydrocarbons into smaller ones. Thermal cracking gives mixtures of products containing high proportions of hydrocarbons with double bonds – alkenes.

A large number of chemical reactions take place during steam cracking, most of them based on free radicals. Computer simulations aimed at modeling what takes place during steam cracking have included hundreds or even thousands of reactions in their models. The main reactions that take place include:

Initiation reactions, where a single molecule breaks apart into two free radicals. Only a small fraction of the feed molecules actually undergo initiation, but these reactions are necessary to produce the free radicals that drive the rest of the reactions. In steam cracking, initiation usually involves breaking a chemical bond between two carbon atoms, rather than the bond between a carbon and a hydrogen atom..

CH3CH3 → 2 CH3

Hydrogen abstraction occurs where a free radical removes a hydrogen atom from another molecule, turning the second molecule into a free radical.

CH3• + CH3CH3 → CH4 + CH3CH2

Radical decomposition occurs where a free radical breaks apart into two molecules, one an alkene, the other a free radical. This is the process that results in the alkene products of steam cracking.

CH3CH2• → CH2=CH2 + H•

Radical addition, the reverse of radical decomposition, occurs where a radical reacts with an alkene to form a single, larger free radical. These processes are involved in forming the aromatic products that result when heavier feedstocks are used.

CH3CH2• + CH2=CH2 → CH3CH2CH2CH2

Termination reactions occur when two free radicals react with each other to produce products that are not free radicals. Two common forms of termination are recombination, where the two radicals combine to form one larger molecule, and disproportionation, where one radical transfers a hydrogen atom to the other, giving an alkene and an alkane.

CH3• + CH3CH2• → CH3CH2CH3
CH3CH2• + CH3CH2• → CH2=CH2 + CH3CH3

Thermal cracking is an example of a reaction whose energetics are dominated by entropy (∆S°) rather than by enthalpy (∆H°) in the Gibbs Free Energy equation ∆G°=∆H°-T∆S°. Although the bond dissociation energy D for a carbon-carbon single bond is relatively high (about 375 kJ/mol) and cracking is highly endothermic, the large positive entropy change resulting from the fragmentation of one large molecule into several smaller pieces, together with the extremely high temperature, makes T∆S° term larger than the ∆H° term, thereby favoring the cracking reaction.

Here is an example of cracking of butane CH3-CH2-CH2-CH3

  • 1st possibility (48%): breaking is done on the CH3-CH2 bond.

CH3* / *CH2-CH2-CH3

After a certain number of steps, we will obtain an alkane and an alkene: CH4 + CH2=CH-CH3

  • 2nd possibility (38%): breaking is done on the CH2-CH2 bond.

CH3-CH2* / *CH2-CH3

After a certain number of steps, we will obtain an alkane and an alkene from different types: CH3-CH3 + CH2=CH2

  • 3rd possibility (14%): breaking of a C-H bond

After a certain number of steps, we will obtain an alkene and hydrogen gas: CH2=CH-CH2-CH3 + H2 this is very useful since the catalyst can be recycled.


Oil refinerycracking processes allow the production of “light” products such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and gasoline from heavier crude oil distillation fractions such as gas oils and residues. Fluid catalytic cracking produces a high yield of gasoline and LPG, while hydrocracking is a major source of jet fuel, diesel, naphtha, and LPG.

Thermal cracking is currently used to “upgrade” very heavy fractions or to produce light fractions or distillates, burner fuel and/or petroleum coke. Two extremes of the thermal cracking in terms of product range are represented by the high-temperature process called “steam cracking” or pyrolysis (ca. 750 °C to 900 °C or more) which produces valuable ethylene and other feedstocks for the petrochemical industry, and the milder-temperature delayed coking (ca. 500 °C) which can produce, under the right conditions, valuable needle coke, a highly crystalline petroleum coke used in the production of electrodes for the steel and aluminium industries.

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