Thursday, June 25, 2015

Synthetic Production of Gasoline

In 1944, U.S. bombers destroyed this synthetic fuel refinery at Zeitz, Germany, just south of Leipzig, which had produced liquid fuel from locally available brown coal since 1938. In 1955, apartheid South Africa began to experiment with the Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-liquid process, and greatly increased its use as international sanctions for apartheid rule escalated.

The United States Bureau of Mines, in a program initiated by the Synthetic Liquid Fuels Act, employed seven Operation Paperclip synthetic fuel scientists in a Fischer-Tropsch plant in Louisiana, Missouri in 1946.

Most everybody has heard that the Germans produced large volumes of gasoline and other petroleum products by chemically cracking coal during the war. Besides gasoline, diesel fuel, lubricating oils and greases were manufactured using this process. Huge underground refineries were rumored to be under construction as the war ended which would have allowed the Germans to fuel their war machine indefinitely. Following the war, this process of coal to gasoline conversion never seemed to materialize in spite of cyclic gasoline shortages which, naturally, threw doubt on the technical and economic feasibility of turning America's vast coal reserves into something other than polluting smoke-stack industry.

 From time to time, this subject would re-emerge such as an article in The Dallas Morning News, dated Tuesday, September 4, 1990. This article was titled: "Scientists Seek To Study Nazi Paper" and contained all the often reported statements such as a post-war US plant in Louisiana, Mo. which used this German technology to produce gasoline at 1.6 cents per gallon. Mentioned in the story was a storehouse of German technical documents at Texas A&M University and a Professor Arnold Krammer. 

A treasure of captured German documents was located with Professor Krammer, the Professor of Modern German History, as well as Dr. David Chappman, Curator of the Cushing Library, which housed the material. 

Before the war there had been processes by which coal was cracked and converted to oil (and so gasoline and so forth). The Germans came up with two new methods for doing so which were an advance on previous methods. 

The first method was developed by Friedrich Bergius and for which he won the Nobel Prize. It is sometimes called the "Bergius process" or the "hydrogenation process". It involves forcing a mixture of powdered coal, recycled oil, and a catalyst into a high-pressure vessel filled with hydrogen. This resulted in the liquefaction of the coal. The liquefied coal was then separated into gasoline, middle oil and heavy oil. The final products were diesel fuel and gasoline. Four to five tons of coal was necessary to make a ton of gasoline. 

The second method is often called the "Fischer-Tropsch process", after its inventors, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch. In this process, powdered coal was broken up by super-heated steam to produce a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases. This gas mixture was then purified to remove all sulfur compounds. It was then passed over a metal catalyst to produce low-octane gasoline and high-grade diesel oil as well as wax, the latter being further processed into lubricating oils. This process could be done at lower pressure and temperature than the Bergius process. And like the Bergius or hydrogenation process, it yielded one ton of petroleum product for about four or five tons of coal. 

In fact, the Germans had 14 separate projects involving synthetic petroleum products made from coal with about 112 separate facilities of various sizes. The plan was to relocate these facilities underground in bombproof shelters. At the cessation of hostilities, 2,708,000 square feet of underground facilities were planned for synthetic petroleum production. Only 689,000 square feet had been completed, however, leaving 2,019,000 under construction. By German standards, underground synthetic petroleum production was not a large project. The SS planned a total of 11,298,000 square feet of underground facilities just for their own private use. 

Unlike some other German secrets, it seems that the Allies, particularly the British and Americans, got all the information on synthetic petroleum product that they desired. As much as 175 tons of German documents regarding synthetic petroleum production fell into the hands of the Allies. This information was translated, evaluated, and if appropriate, given to the major oil companies without cost. Imagine, two whole new breakthrough energy technologies were simply handed to some of the most wealthy companies which have ever existed without the cost of research and development or even the cost for the patents. 

The question arises, what did we do with this technology after the war? The answer is that in 1949 the Bureau of Mines built a demonstration coal conversion plant in Louisiana, Missouri. This facility used the Bergius or hydrogenation process as developed by I.G. Farben in Germany. For three years this plant remained in operation. They first tested various types of coal from all over the United States. After satisfying themselves about the method, they seemed to have focused on improving the procedure itself. Defrayed by the sale of byproducts, the cost to produce a gallon of gasoline was 10.6 cents per gallon. This meant, at the time, a cost at the pump of about 15. or 16. cents per gallon. Unfortunately, this figure was about 25% higher than the cost of natural petroleum gasoline at the time. 

This is the basic problem. At any given time it is cheaper to import crude oil or imported refined gasoline than it is to produce synthetic gasoline at home from coal. Given the flux in the crude oil price, nobody, no oil company, no government, wants to invest the money which large-scale conversion from coal to gasoline requires. The Louisiana, Missouri plant was shut down in 1953 by the Eisenhower Administration as a result of opposition to it from the oil industry itself. 

The subject comes up, and probably will continue to come up, with each cyclic spike in gasoline prices. Perhaps, once the public realizes that this spike is cyclic and not an aberration, pressure will be placed on industry and the appropriate elected officials and a source of energy at a relatively stable price will finally be made available.

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