Catalytic Cracking and Hydrocracking

Difference Between Catalytic Cracking and Hydrocracking

Overview of the difference between Catalytic Cracking and Hydrocracking

Catalytic Cracking and Hydrocracking are two essential processes in the petroleum refining industry that serve distinct purposes and utilize different reaction mechanisms.

Catalytic cracking differs significantly from hydrocracking by carbon rejection requirements; while hydrocracking involves adding hydrogen.

Cracking processes play a pivotal role in petroleum refineries. By changing large molecules to small ones and improving gasoline’s octane rating, cracking helps boost octane ratings.

Catalytic cracking – more specifically cracking with fluids — converts hydrocarbons with high boiling points and molecular weight into gasoline, olefinic gases, or various petroleum-based products by changing high-boiling elements to lower-boiling ones through this process.

Catalytic Cracking

Catalytic cracking, more specifically fluid catalytic cracking can be described as the process that converts high boiling points, heavy molecular weight hydrocarbons, into gas, olefinic as well as other petroleum-based products.

It is a process of conversion beneficial in refineries for petroleum. It is the case that there is an extremely high boiling point and the molecular weight percentage is high in crude oil (petroleum) which undergoes catalytic cracking.

Catalytic Cracking
Figure 01: Catalytic Cracking

In the beginning, the cracking of petroleum was performed with the help of thermal methods. But, nowadays, it’s mostly replaced by catalytic cracking. The reason for this is that the former results in a larger quantity of gasoline that has a high octane rating.

Furthermore, it generates gas byproducts that have higher carbon-carbon double bonds like the olefins. Thus, catalytic cracking is better economically than the thermal cracking method.

In the case of the catalytic cracking process, the primary feedstock is heavy gas oil. This is the component that contains a boiling temperature of 340 or higher. Additionally, the molecular mass is between 200 and 600 or more in these fractions.


Hydrocracking involves changing high-boiling components into lower-boiling constituents. This means that the components of the hydrocracking process are components of petroleum oils with high boiling points and the resulting compounds have very low boiling points.

This procedure is essential because low-temperature products are the most valuable hydrocarbons. This includes fuel, kerosene, and gasoline as well as jet fuel, and diesel among others.

Figure 02: Hydrocracking

The process of hydrocracking has been known as hydrocracking because the breaking down of huge molecules happens when hydrogen gas. In general, hydrocracking occurs in extreme conditions. The reason is that the reactants in the hydrocracking feedstocks are subjected to the temperatures of the reactor for long periods of duration.

This process can be described as catalytic cracking since it utilizes a catalyst for speeding up the process. This is usually a metallic catalyst. The process typically yields saturated hydrocarbons.

But, the kind of hydrocarbon produced is contingent on the reaction conditions which include the temperature of the reaction mix as well as pressure and catalytic activities. These products could comprise ethane, LPG, and isoparaffins.

Difference Between Catalytic Cracking and Hydrocracking

Catalytic cracking and hydrocracking are two distinct processes in the petroleum refining industry, each serving different purposes and involving different reaction mechanisms. Here are the key differences between catalytic cracking and hydrocracking:

  1. Process Objective:
    • Catalytic Cracking: The primary objective of catalytic cracking is to convert heavy hydrocarbon feedstocks into lighter hydrocarbon products, such as gasoline and light olefins. The focus is on breaking down large hydrocarbon molecules.
    • Hydrocracking: Hydrocracking aims to convert heavy hydrocarbon feedstocks into higher-quality products, primarily diesel fuel. The process involves both hydrogenation and cracking reactions, with an emphasis on reducing impurities and improving fuel quality.
  2. Reaction Mechanism:
    • Catalytic Cracking: Catalytic cracking primarily relies on the use of a solid catalyst to promote cracking reactions. The catalyst facilitates the breakdown of large hydrocarbon molecules into smaller fragments through thermal and catalytic decomposition.
    • Hydrocracking: Hydrocracking combines hydrogenation and cracking reactions. Hydrogen gas is introduced along with a catalyst, enabling the saturation of heavy hydrocarbon molecules through hydrogenation. Subsequently, cracking occurs, breaking down the saturated molecules into lighter components.
  3. Catalyst:
    • Catalytic Cracking: Catalytic cracking uses solid acid catalysts, typically composed of zeolite or silica-alumina. These catalysts provide the necessary acidic sites for the cracking reactions to occur.
    • Hydrocracking: Hydrocracking employs a bifunctional catalyst that combines both hydrogenation and cracking functionalities. The catalyst contains metals (such as platinum, palladium, or nickel) supported on a solid material, such as alumina or zeolite.
  4. Hydrogen Requirement:
    • Catalytic Cracking: Catalytic cracking processes do not require a significant amount of hydrogen. Hydrogen gas is not consumed in the cracking reactions but may be used in auxiliary processes like catalyst regeneration.
    • Hydrocracking: Hydrocracking is a hydrogen-intensive process. Large quantities of hydrogen gas are required as it plays a crucial role in saturating heavy hydrocarbon molecules through hydrogenation reactions. Hydrogen gas is consumed in the process and needs to be continuously supplied.
  5. Product Composition:
    • Catalytic Cracking: The main product of catalytic cracking is gasoline, which has a high octane rating and is used as a transportation fuel. Light olefins, such as ethylene and propylene, are also produced and find application in the petrochemical industry.
    • Hydrocracking: Hydrocracking primarily produces high-quality diesel fuel with improved cetane ratings and reduced sulfur content. Additionally, it yields other valuable products like naphtha, LPG (liquefied petroleum gas), and petrochemical feedstocks.
  6. Feedstock Compatibility:
    • Catalytic Cracking: Catalytic cracking is suitable for heavy hydrocarbon feedstocks, such as gas oils and vacuum gas oils. It is particularly effective in converting heavier fractions into lighter products.
    • Hydrocracking: Hydrocracking can process a broader range of feedstocks, including heavy gas oils, residues, and bitumen. It is capable of converting heavy and lower-value feedstocks into higher-quality distillates.

These differences highlight the contrasting objectives, reaction mechanisms, catalysts, hydrogen requirements, product compositions, and feedstock compatibilities between catalytic cracking and hydrocracking. Both processes have their unique applications and play critical roles in the petroleum refining industry, offering flexibility in converting different feedstocks and producing a range of valuable products.


Catalytic cracking and hydrocracking are two important processes within petroleum refining that each have their own objectives and mechanisms. Catalytic cracking involves breaking apart heavy hydrocarbon molecules into lighter products such as gasoline and light olefins using solid acid catalysts; hydrocracking, on the other hand, uses hydrogenation reactions with cracking reactions to convert heavy feedstocks to higher quality diesel fuel using bifunctional catalysts and hydrogen gas as catalysts.

Catalytic cracking primarily generates gasoline and light olefins while hydrocracking creates high-grade diesel fuel along with naphtha and other useful by-products for use as feedstock in other processes, like naphtha production or petrochemical feedstock manufacturing. Catalytic cracking requires only modest quantities of hydrogen while hydrocracking demands an abundance.

Hydrocracking offers more versatility as it can handle heavier feedstocks while catalytic cracking specializes in handling light feedstocks; each process brings its own advantages that help optimize crude oil utilization while producing valuable fuels and chemicals, and complying with environmental regulations.