After 1910 the demand for automotive fuel began to outstrip the market requirements for kerosene, and refiners were pressed to develop new technologies to increase gasoline yields. The earliest process, called thermal cracking, consisted of heating heavier oils (for which there was a low market requirement) in pressurized reactors and thereby cracking, or splitting, their large molecules into the smaller ones that form the lighter, more valuable fractions such as gasoline, kerosene, and light industrial fuels. Gasoline manufactured by the cracking process performed better in automobile engines than gasoline derived from straight distillation of crude petroleum. The development of more powerful airplane engines in the late 1930s gave rise to a need to increase the combustion characteristics of gasoline and spurred the development of lead-based fuel additives to improve engine performance.
During the 1930s and World War II, sophisticated refining processes involving the use of catalysts led to further improvements in the quality of transportation fuels and further increased their supply. These improved processes—including catalytic cracking of heavy oils, alkylation, polymerization, and isomerization—enabled the petroleum industry to meet the demands of high-performance combat aircraft and, after the war, to supply increasing quantities of transportation fuels.
The 1950s and ’60s brought a large-scale demand for jet fuel and high-quality lubricating oils. The continuing increase in demand for petroleum products also heightened the need to process a wider variety of crude oils into high-quality products. Catalytic reforming of naphtha replaced the earlier thermal reforming process and became the leading process for upgrading fuel qualities to meet the needs of higher-compression engines. Hydrocracking, a catalytic cracking process conducted in the presence of hydrogen, was developed to be a versatile manufacturing process for increasing the yields of either gasoline or jet fuels.