Catalytic cracking is widely used to convert the high-boiling, high-molecular weight hydrocarbon fractions of petroleum crude oils into more valuable gasoline, olefinic gases, and other products. Cracking of petroleum hydrocarbons was originally done by thermal cracking, which has been almost completely replaced by catalytic cracking because it produces more gasoline with a higher octane rating. It also produces byproduct gases that have more carbon-carbon double bonds (i.e. more olefins), and hence more economic value, than those produced by thermal cracking.
The feedstock to FCC is usually that portion of the crude oil that has an initial boiling point of 340 °C or higher at atmospheric pressure and an average molecular weight ranging from about 200 to 600 or higher. This portion of crude oil is often referred to as heavy gas oil or vacuum gas oil (HVGO). In the FCC process, the feedstock is heated to a high temperature and moderate pressure, and brought into contact with a hot, powdered catalyst. The catalyst breaks the long-chain molecules of the high-boiling hydrocarbon liquids into much shorter molecules, which are collected as a vapor.