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CAER Seminars


Dr. Anthony N. Stranges
Department of History
Texas A& M University
College Station, TX

Thursday, October 26, 2000, 3:30 pm
Ben Bandy Conference Center
Center for Applied Energy Research

Germany has virtually no petroleum deposits. Prior to the twentieth century this was not a serious problem because Germany possessed abundant coal reserves. Coal provided for commercial and home heating; it also fulfilled the needs of industry and the military, particularly the navy. In the opening decade of the twentieth century, Germany's fuel requirements began to change. Two reasons were especially important. First, Germany became increasingly dependent on gasoline and diesel oil engines. The appearance of automobiles, trucks, and then airplanes made a plentiful supply of gasoline essential. Moreover, ocean-going ships increasingly used diesel oil rather than coal as their energy source. Second, Germany's continuing industrialization and urbanization led to the replacement of coal with smokeless liquid fuels that not only had a higher energy content but were cleaner burning and more convenient to handle.

Petroleum was clearly the fuel of the future, and to insure that Germany would never lack a plentiful supply, German scientists and engineers invented and developed two processes that enabled them to synthesize petroleum from their country's abundant coal supplies and to establish the world's first technologically successful synthetic liquid fuel industry. Friedrich Bergius (1884-1949) in Rheinau-Mannheim began the German drive for energy independence with his invention and early development of high-pressure coal hydrogenation or liquefaction in the years 1910-25. A decade after Bergius began his work Franz Fischer (1877-1947) and Hans Tropsch at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Coal Research (KWI) in Mülheim, Ruhr, invented a second process for the synthesis of liquid fuel from coal.

By the mid-1930s IG Farben, Ruhrchemie, and other chemical companies had started to industrialize synthetic liquid fuel production, resulting in the construction of twelve coal hydrogenation and nine Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) plants by the time World War II ended in 1945. Several breakthroughs contributed to the success of coal hydrogenation the most significant of which were the sulfur resistant catalysts and the two stage liquid-vapor phase hydrogenation that Matthias Pier (1882-1965) at BASF (IG Farben) developed in the late 1920s. For the F-T synthesis the cobalt catalysts that Fischer and his co-workers prepared in the 1920s-30s were crucial to its success.

Because of synthetic liquid fuel's high production cost the industry benefited from the financial incentives Germany's Nazi government offered beginning in December 1933, and because liquid fuel was crucial to Germany's war effort the synthetic fuel industry became a major part of Adolf Hitler's Four Year Plan of 1936. As the war dragged on, the synthetic fuel industry, like many German industries, experienced serious labor shortages, and to avoid any loss of production and slowdown of the war effort some of the plants used forced labor that the German government provided.

Of the two processes hydrogenation was the more advanced and contributed much more significantly to Germany's liquid fuel supply than the F-T synthesis. Coal hydrogenation produced high quality aviation and motor gasoline, whereas the F-T synthesis gave high quality diesel and lubricating oil, waxes, and some lower quality motor gasoline. The two processes actually were complementary rather than competitive, but because only coal hydrogenation produced high quality gasoline it experienced much greater expansion in the late 1930s and war years than the F-T synthesis, which hardly grew at all. F-T products were mainly the raw materials for further chemical syntheses with little upgrading of its low quality gasoline by cracking because of unfavorable economics.

Hydrogenation also had experienced greater development because brown coal (lignite), the only coal available in many parts of Germany, underwent hydrogenation more readily than a F-T synthesis. In addition, the more mature and better developed hydrogenation process had the support of IG Farben, Germany's chemical leader, which had successfully industrialized coal hydrogenation beginning in 1927. A historical analysis of the invention and industrial development of the two synthetic fuel processes during several decades of German social, political, and economic unrest follows.