What Is Hydrocracking?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 12 January 2020
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Hydrocracking is a refinery process that converts feedstock into more usable components. It can be used to recover more value from crude oil and to meet the demand for specific products. Refineries use a variety of calculations to determine the ratio of products they should make based on demand, market conditions, and the feedstock they work with. Conversion processes like hydrocracking are an important part of adjusting refinery production activities to meet changing needs.

This process includes two stages. In the first, the feedstock is blended with a catalyst to crack the long, heavy chemical chains in the crude oil. The cracked material is allowed to cool and then cycles to a unit where hydrogen attaches to it to create new chemical compounds. Catalysts and hydrogen are needed for this process, in concentrations that depend on the base composition of the feedstock. Before converting, technicians test the oil to determine how it should be treated in order to extract as many usable components as possible.

The resulting product can be distilled in high temperature and pressure conditions. Within the distillation column, materials with different boiling points separate at unique stages. This allows technicians to recover gasoline, jet fuel, and other useful components after the hydrocracking process is complete. These materials should be free of sulfur and other impurities because of their earlier processing, and can be blended to achieve specific fuel mixtures that meet basic labeling standards.


Reactors may operate continuously or in batches, depending on how a facility is laid out and what kind of equipment it uses. Efficiency levels can depend on the base feedstock and how it is handled. The costs of collecting, shipping, and processing oil are considerable. For this reason, refineries use a variety of techniques to extract as much as possible from each barrel so they can produce a range of products for commercial sale. Pricing doesn’t always follow capacity and market conditions, and may lag behind by several months.

Refineries perform hydrocracking and a related process called hydrotreatment all over the wold to process crude oil. These treatment methods require careful chemistry. Technicians in the oil and gas industry can test oils to develop profiles, determine which catalysts are appropriate, and establish the settings for the hydrocracking reactor. Educational institutions offer training to those interested in careers in this field, and it may be possible to learn on the job, in some instances.


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