No. 1, 2006

Prof. Alexander Igolkin
Dr.Sc. (History)


In the 1930s, Russia's cracking industry was set up using the latest achievements of American technology

The USSR's demand for high-octane gasolines grew with the development of the Soviet aviation and automobile industries. Taking advantage of the experience of the Western countries (especially that of the United States), the Soviet Union energetically began to create an oil-refining capacities equipped with imported cracking plants.

The British Cracking Pancake

In the 1920s, the domestic demand for gasoline in the USSR was quite low. This was explained by the weak development of the automobile industry, in particular: only 841 automobiles were manufactured in the country in 1928. It was for this reason that a large portion of the gasoline produced went for export. In 192829, 88% of the fuel produced in the USSR was sold to foreign customers.

With the proclamation of the industrialization policy and the accelerated development of heavy industry (including the automobile and aviation industries), the demand for high-quality gasoline grew sharply in the USSR. Although attempts had been made in the first half of the 1920s to develop an experimental plant that would carry out the cracking process, the country's existing metallurgical and machine-building engineering base prevented this from being accomplished. The problems associated with the construction, under the direction of an engineer named Tregubov, of a pilot plant employing a patent issued to petroleum engineer Semen Kvitka, prompted the industry's leaders to turn to the latest foreign experience instead.

Soviet engineers were assigned a task to propose an acceptable version of a project incorporating Western experience in the shortest possible time. By this time, a wide variety of thermal cracking systems were in use around the world. In the United States alone, there were more than 30 such systems, the best known and most common of which were the Dobbs, Borton, Cross, Eisom, Jenkins, and WinklerKoch cracking plants.

However, the first contract to build a thermal cracking plant in the USSR was signed in 1925 with the Vickers Company of Great Britain. The trials through which the British installation had been put, however, had been by that time insufficient. As a result, serious difficulties began during the construction phase. In July 1927, when the first section of the plant was commissioned at Dzhaparidze Refinery in Baku, a great many problems with the equipment, construction, and technology were discovered; these would not be solved definitively until 1929. It was this year that marked the official launch of the USSR's first cracking process based on foreign technology.

A second Vickers installation was put into service in Baku in 1930. However, the British plants turned out to be inadequately efficient in operation and rather difficult to service. As the campaign of repression began to unfold in the USSR, the plants' numerous shutdowns and minor accidents provided a reason for a number of the engineers who had proposed the Vickers plants to be charged with premeditated sabotage and sentenced to death. In the periodicals of that time, it was written ...everyone knows that the Vickers Co., while working to set up its cracking plants in the USSR, was closely associated with the wreckers, for the construction of the plants was interminably protracted and accompanied by a number of 'accidental' fires, explosions, et cetera. The saboteurs stubbornly resisted an attempt to send orders for supply of cracking plants to American companies.

In 1936, the Vickers plants were shut down and mothballed, and would be put back into operation only during the Second World War, when the Soviet Union was suffering from a major shortage of high-octane gasoline.

The American breakthrough

In parallel with the above events, the heads of the Soviet oil industry were on the lookout for new partners. In July 1928, negotiations to construct a new cracking unit that would employ the Cross system were held in Moscow with representatives of the Kellogg Company. Negotiations with this company came to naught, possibly because the Soviet leadership was not satisfied with the length of time it would take to set such a station up, i.e. at least two years.

Instead, a contract was signed with an American company that manufactured units employing the Jenkins system. It was these installations that the prominent Russian oilman Ivan Strizhov recommended to the heads of the industry in 1928. In 1930, four Jenkins-system units were simultaneously put into operation in Batumi. A twin installation employing the same system but with increased capacity came on line in Grozny. The Jenkins installations quickly became the subject of criticism, however, and Strizhov was unjustly charged with a number of crimes and sentenced to death.

The WinklerKoch Corporation of Wichita, Kansas, became the Soviets' new supplier. An agreement was reached whereby the company would provide equipment and technical support in building new cracking units.

The first WinklerKoch plants were set up in Tuapse in 1930. The cracking unit operated commendably, and would in the future be the type preferred by the heads of the Soviet Union's petroleum industry when purchasing new cracking equipment.

In 1931, two WinklerKoch cracking units were launched in Baku, another two in Batumi, and six at once in Grozny; the last had a combined refining capacity of 900,000 tons per year. In 1932, a WinklerKoch unit commenced operations in Yaroslavl.

Between 1930 and 1932, some 15 WinklerKoch cracking units were delivered to the USSR, but no more new orders were sent to the United States. It was much more advantageous for the Soviets to build such installations themselves, especially since the need for them was constantly growing: domestic production of automobiles and airplanes had risen sharply.

The demand for gasoline grew rapidly in the USSR: almost 200,000 automobiles were produced in the Soviet Union in 1937. The proportion of gasoline exported in 1930 was 74.2% of the total produced; by 1935, this figure had fallen to 21.4%. Exports of gasoline from the USSR continued to fall rapidly in the second half of the 1930s; by 1939, they had declined by a factor of 5.6, compared to those of 1935.

Hail to the Soviet cracking!

Alongside the use of cutting-edge foreign technology, the construction began in 1929 in Baku of the first Soviet cracking unit, designed by mechanical engineer Vladimir Shukhov and equipment designer Matvey Kapelyushnikov. Speaking at the First Baku Technical Petroleum Conference, Kapelyushnikov stressed that the first Soviet cracking system had been constructed using materials that are commonplace for us. The first Soviet cracking unit was launched in 1931. It had a very small design capacity for refining crude oil: a mere 30 tons annually, while the WinklerKoch equipment was capable of producing 150,000300,000 tons per year. The ShukhovKapelyushnikov unit in Baku operated as a pilot plant until 1935, and various technological schemes and regimes were tested there.

Having considered the positive experience gained in operating the ShukhovKapelyushnikov installation, industry heads decided to proceed with Soviet cracking stations. On October 5, 1930, the Politburo approved a proposal by the USSR's Supreme Economic Council that cracking units should henceforth be manufactured in the Soviet Union, but following foreign designs and employing imported equipment. To achieve these goals, the Cracking Construction Association (Krekingstroy) was set up within the Main Petroleum Administration (Glavneft).

In the early 1930s, the blueprints needed to construct cracking equipment in the USSR were ordered to the WinklerKoch Co. The firm was also contracted to receive Soviet technicians for training in the United States.

In the second half of 1931, WinklerKoch equipment worth 550,000 rubles was delivered to the Soviet Union. It was decided that this hardware would be used to reequip the steam repair plant (Paroremont) in Podolsk (which was also renamed) for the production of cracking installations and other equipment for petroleum refining.

The Krasny Molot factory in Grozny began production of cracking installations at the beginning of 1930s. In 1932, two full sets of the Grozny plant's cracking unit equipment were produced in the USSR (as which differed in design from the ShukhovKapelyushnikov plants).

It should be noted that the first Soviet cracking unit was closer in design to the Vickers apparatuses. However, the devices produced at domestic cracking equipment factories were designated Soviet WinklerKoch-type plants in official reports. Two installations of this type were commissioned in Grozny in 1933; four in Saratov, in 1934; four each in Grozny and Saratov, and one each in Khabarovsk and Yaroslavl, in 1936; and four in Baku, in 1936.

The first Krekingstroi plants in the USSR were built under the direction of American experts. Construction proceeded with genuine enthusiasm. When first cracking gasoline (125 tons) was produced in April 1934 at the Saratov Oil Refinery, the following report was sent to Moscow: Through the efforts of the refinery's employees, shock workers, and engineers and technicians, the first Soviet cracking plant, constructed using Soviet equipment and by Soviet specialists and workers, has begun giving the country a high-quality fuel gasoline.

Soviet technicians were sent to learn on the job in the United States and other countries, and always kept abreast of their foreign colleagues' latest trends in the area of cracking plants construction.

Neftyanoye khozyaystvo (The Oil Economy), the leading industry journal of the day, noted that, in the United States, an uncommonly rapid pace has been set in perfecting all cracking-unit components, and every refurbished unit in America is now significantly improved as compared to its previous version. According to the journal, more than $5 million was spent on cracking research and development in the United States every year.

Meanwhile, relying on foreign experience and using foreign equipment, Soviet scientists were working to create better cracking unit in the USSR. In 1936, a fuel-oil cracking unit employing twin furnaces was put into operation in Grozny. The station proved to be 35% to 48% more efficient than the refinery's existing WinklerKoch apparatus, which had by that time been made obsolescent. The unit was produced in the Soviet Union; this was, however, due in large part to the fact that all of the equipment needed for its manufacture was imported.

In 1937, another two Soviet twin-furnace cracking plants were set up in Grozny, along with one each in Odessa, Berdyansk, and Orsk. Other cracking unit of this type came on line in Grozny, Moscow, Kherson, Bedryansk, and Orsk in 1938; in Saratov, Moscow, and Orsk, in 1939; and in Osipenko and Kherson, in 1940.

The center of attention: high-quality gasoline

The production of aviation gasoline remained a problem area in the Soviet Union's oil-refining industry. The new types of airplanes being produced demanded high-octane gasoline, while that produced by Soviet cracking stations in the first half of the 1930s typically had an octane number of only 56. In order to raise the octane number even to 70 or 80, Soviet refineries needed more up-to-date equipment. In the latter half of the 1930s, Soviet leaders signed a contract with the American company Universal Oil Products which was to supply the equipment needed to produce high-octane gasoline in Grozny and Saratov. This mutually beneficial collaboration continued in 1938 with the construction of a refinery for the production of aviation fuel in Chernikovsk.

In April 1935, the technical design and general specifications for the first stage of the Ufa cracking plant was approved by the People's Commissariate for Heavy Industry (Narkomtyazhprom). Construction of the enterprise began almost immediately, in May 1935, near the villages of Shchelchky and Vorobyevka, several kilometers north of Ufa's old town. State enterprises in Moscow, Baku, Grozny, and Saratov participated in the construction of the refinery. Most of the equipment, however, came from abroad, from the American companies Alco Product and Lummus. As early as 1940, the capacity of the Lummus cracking plant (as it was referred to in official Soviet documents) stood at 900,000 tons.

Plans were drawn up in the USSR to further increase cracking gasoline production, and to improve its quality. Not long before the war started, work began on construction of the Stalingrad Factory for the Production of Heavy Duty Cracking Equipment, with a planned budget on the order of 60 million rubles. Its construction was to have been one of the greatest projects of the Third Five-Year Plan period.

By 1940, the consumption of gasoline in the USSR had risen by dozens of times, as compared to 1928 levels, with cracking gasoline accounting for the bulk of the increase. The refinery capacity then existing allowed almost all of the crude oil produced in the USSR to be refined an impossibility during the First Five-Year Plan period. Nevertheless, on the eve of the war, the Soviet Union lagged substantially behind the United States in the production of high-octane gasoline, both in terms of volume and - even more importantly - in quality.

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Oil of Russia, No. 1, 2006
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