Petroleum Industry

Mass Spectrometer 9 (MS9) in operation in Humble Oil and Refining Company, Baytown, Texas. The system was used to identify and quantify compounds and compound types in petroleum, including oxygen-, nitrogen- and sulfur-containing compounds. From left: H. E. Lumpkin at operating console and "Jug" Daniels, Electronics Technician, making tests. CHF Collections.


The mass spectrometer has proven itself in the petroleum industry as an essential analytical and process control instrument. Mass spectrometers are currently entering such diverse industries as chemical, rubber, glass, air products, meat packing and food processing, metal, and aircraft products. 
D. R. Lawler, “Analytical Applications of Mass Spectrometry,” Ohio Journal of Science (1952), 150


Shortly after the commercial release of mass spectrometers during World War II, chemists were reluctant to accept mass spectrometry’s value, especially since engineers were required to run and maintain the complicated machinery. One group of chemists who realized early the benefits of the technology worked in the petroleum industry. Earl Lumpkin, a mass spectrometrist with Humble Oil and Refining Company and later Standard Oil Company recalls the first publication about mass spectrometry in an industrial setting during World War II:

In about 1940, the first publication about industrial mass spectrometry was a paper by Herbert [C.] Hoover, Jr., and Harold [W.] Washburn, describing the CEC [Consolidated Engineering Corporation] mass spectrometer. It turns out that a lot of petroleum people were impressed with the instrument’s analysis of methane, ethane, and propane. It could also separate iso-normal butane. All the oil companies then said, “Hey, this beats the old low-temperature distillation procedure—we must have one!” (Lumpkin, 9)


1951 memorandum on preparation of gas samples at Standard Oil (Indiana). CHF Collections. Click here for full size.


The instrument was being touted as a means to analyze and separate the complicated hydrocarbons—which had very similar masses—of which crude oil and petroleum are composed. With war needs paramount, chemists around the country pursued a variety of scientific research projects, one of which was the vital need for synthetic rubber. The urgency of war necessitated much faster scientific results. So the petroleum industry became involved with mass spectrometry without planning to do so, as the process for synthetic rubber used a petroleum hydrocarbon by-product for its starting material.

After the war the petroleum industry remained intrigued by the possibilities of mass spectrometry. Humble and other oil companies were some of the first widespread users of the new mass-spectrometry instruments. However, the young Ph.D. chemists joining these companies had little or no experience with the instruments. Burnaby Munson explained:

Hear Burnaby Munson: The University of Texas in Austin did not have one. I’d actually had a little bit of indirect [experience]. . . a friend of mine who graduated a year before me was working down in Baytown, in the research center, and he ran some mass spectra of some of the material, the pyrolyzate from acetylene, aromatic hydrocarbons, polynuclear [aromatic hydrocarbons] ones, and so forth and so on. He ran the mass spectra, and we just made some guess as to what the compounds were. But I didn’t know a thing at all about it. You know, the mass spectrometry was not offered and was not discussed in my graduate analytical course that I recall anything at all about. (Munson, 17)

Even though the petroleum industries in the nearby Texas oil fields were using the new instruments for analysis, academics and the universities were slow to employ them. Consequently, incoming employees usually had never worked with the complicated and often mysterious-seeming machinery before. The petroleum industry required that its chemists, burgeoning mass spectrometrists, learn quickly, and these individuals readily embraced the new technology for the necessary petroleum-analysis work.

CEC 103

Detail of the CEC 103 Mass Spectrometer, Photograph by Gregory Tobias.

Before the adoption of commercial mass spectrometers the petroleum industry faced crude-oil and by-product analyses that would take hours. During World War II this timeframe had proven unacceptable, and the new mass spectrometers reduced the time for a compositional analysis of crude-oil and by-product mixtures to only 4 hours. Previous methods had taken up to 10 hours to produce results. However, the CEC 21-101, introduced in late 1942, and other instruments were not a panacea. Seymour Meyerson described the early instruments as

...still really pretty primitive. For example, if you sat down to run a gas sample—and that was what most of the [petroleum] work was on the machine—running it would take maybe 15, 20 minutes. During that time you kept your hand on the potentiometer that controlled the filament current. And you kept looking at the meter that measured the ionizing current. And you kept jiggling the filament current in order to try to hold the ionizing current as steady as you could. (Meyerson, 23)


Functional separation and analysis of petroleum and its by-products required highly sensitive instrumentation because, as Earl Lumpkin proclaimed emphatically in his oral history, “Petroleum is extremely complex!” (Lumpkin, 12).

While the mass spectrometers used just after World War II were not as sensitive as petroleum chemists desired, they were more than happy to employ the new instruments for “quantitative gas analysis,” even in a limited state. According to Meyerson, “That took us through the C-5s, light hydrocarbons, and fixed gases. Took us through the C-5s with all of the C-4 olefins lumped and all the C-5 olefins plus cyclopentane lumped. We felt we could tolerate maybe one- or two-tenths of a percent of C-6s without screwing up the analysis badly. And we just wrote it as C-6 and heavier on our analytical reports”. With many petroleum by-products being larger than six hydrocarbons, this initial analysis was fairly limited. But even so, these instruments were better than no instruments. And while the first generation of mass spectrometers was restricted in its capabilities, chemists were excited about the instruments’ potential. Capitalizing on this post–World War II interest in mass spectrometers, companies began not only producing more mass spectrometers but also improving on their current models. The two largest and most influential instrument companies making mass spectrometers were CEC in California and Westinghouse on the East Coast.

Sibyl Rock: Instruments and Innovation

A vital part of Consolidated Engineering Corporation’s mass-spectrometry operational team, Rock worked directly with chemists to improve instrumentation in the 1950s. Read More >

Early Pioneer Frank Field

Featured in the Spring 2012 Chemical Heritage magazine, Frank Field  was a vital part of Humble Oil's early mass spectrometry research team. Read More >

Tell Us About Yourself

Please take a brief survey to help us plan future online exhibits.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@