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The Role of Synthetic Fuel In World War II Germany


I first heard about the existence of technology for converting coal to gasoline on one of Chaim's shows a few months ago.  Below is an article written in 1981 about synthetic fuel developed by Germany during WWII, and this technology's implications for today.


The Role of Synthetic Fuel
In World War II Germany

implications for today?

Dr. Peter W. Becker

The United States is faced with an acute energy problem. Our dependence on imported petroleum, which accounts for half of the country’s consumption, has caused rising balance of payments deficits that weaken the dollar and contribute to inflation. More worrisome in the long run for the future of this country is the realization that eventually most oil deposits, both foreign and domestic, will be depleted. This grim specter is accompanied by a lack of control over foreign supplies, leaving us dependent on the goodwill and mercy of the oil-producing states.

There are, of course, other sources from which energy can be derived, sources such as nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, solar and thermal power, and the like. But for the foreseeable future they either present many environmental threats or are not yet sufficiently developed to replace our dependence on foreign oil supplies. A sensible energy policy for the time being no doubt would rely on many different sources of energy until a more efficient, effective, and safe method has emerged. Such an approach will include the production of synthetic fuel derived from coal. This method was first effectively used by the Germans during World War II, so an examination of Germany’s situation at that time could be instructive.

As a highly developed industrial state, Germany was dependent even in peacetime on external sources for an adequate supply of oil. Even though Germany’s 1938 oil consumption of little more than 44 million barrels was considerably less than Great Britain’s 76 million barrels, Russia’s 183 million barrels, and the one billion barrels used by the United States, in wartime Germany’s needs for an adequate supply of liquid fuel would be absolutely essential for successful military operations on the ground and, even more so, in the air.1 For Germany, it was precisely the outbreak of the war in 1939 and the concurrent termination of overseas imports that most endangered its ability to conduct mobile warfare.

German oil supplies came from three different sources: imports of crude and finished petroleum products from abroad, production by domestic oil fields, and syntheses of petroleum products from coal.

In 1938, of the total consumption of 44 million barrels, imports from overseas accounted for 28 million barrels or roughly 60 percent of the total supply. An additional 3.8 million barrels were imported overland from European sources (2.8 million barrels came from Romania alone), and another 3.8 million barrels were derived from domestic oil production. The remainder of the total, 9 million barrels, were produced synthetically. Although the total overseas imports were even higher in 1939 before the onset of the blockade in September (33 million barrels), this high proportion of overseas imports only indicated how precarious the fuel situation would become should Germany be cut off from them.2

At the outbreak of the war, Germany’s stockpiles of fuel consisted of a total of 15 million barrels. The campaigns in Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France added another 5 million barrels in booty, and imports from the Soviet Union accounted for 4 million barrels in 1940 and 1.6 million barrels in the first half of 1941. Yet a High Command study in May of 1941 noted that with monthly military requirements for 7.25 million barrels and imports and home production of only 5.35 million barrels, German stocks would be exhausted by August 1941. The 26 percent shortfall could only be made up with petroleum from Russia. The need to provide the lacking 1.9 million barrels per month and the urgency to gain possession of the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus mountains, together with Ukrainian grain and Donets coal, were thus prime elements in the German decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941.3

The smallest of the Russian oil fields at Maikop was captured in August 1942, and it was expected that the two remaining fields and refineries in Grozny and Baku also would fall into German hands. Had the German forces been able to capture these fields and hold them, Germany’s petroleum worries would have been over. Prior to the Russian campaign, Maikop produced 19 million barrels annually, Grozny 32 million barrels, and Baku 170 million barrels.4

Grozny and Baku, however, were never captured, and only Maikop yielded to German exploitation. As was the case in all areas of Russian production, the retreating forces had done a thorough job of destroying or dismantling the usable installations; consequently, the Germans had to start from scratch. In view of past experience with this type of Russian policy, such destruction was expected, and Field Marshal Hermann Göring’s staff had begun making the necessary preparations in advance. But a shortage of transport that was competing with military requirements, a shortage of drill equipment as well as drillers, and the absence of refining capacity at Maikop created such difficulties that when the German forces were compelled to withdraw from Maikop in January 1943 in order to avoid being cut off after the fall of Stalingrad, Germany had failed to obtain a single drop of Caucasian oil. Nevertheless, the Germans were able to extract about 4.7 million barrels from the Soviet Union, a quantity that they would have received anyway under the provisions of the friendship treaty of 1939.5

Even before the Russian prospects had come to naught, Romania had developed into Germany’s chief overland supplier of oil. From 2.8 million barrels in 1938, Romania’s exports to Germany increased to 13 million barrels by 1941,6 a level that was essentially maintained through 1942 and 1943.7 Although the exports were almost half of Romania’s total production, they were considerably less than the Germans expected. One reason for the shortfall was that the Romanian fields were being depleted. There were other reasons as well why the Romanians failed to increase their shipments. Foremost among these was Germany’s inability to make all of its promised deliveries of coal and other products to Romania. Furthermore, although Romania was allied with Germany, the Romanians wished to husband their country’s most valuable resources.8 Finally, the air raids on the Ploesti oil fields and refineries in August 1943 destroyed 50 percent of the Romanian refinery capacity. Aerial mining of the Danube River constituted an additional serious transportation impediment. Even so, Romanian deliveries amounted to 7 million barrels in the first half of 1944 and were not halted until additional raids on Ploesti had been flown in the late spring and summer of 1944.9

Even with the addition of the Romanian deliveries, overland oil imports after 1939 could not make up for the loss of overseas shipments. In order to become less dependent on outside sources, the Germans undertook a sizable expansion program of their own meager domestic oil pumping. Before the annexation of Austria in 1938, oil fields in Germany were concentrated in northwestern Germany. After 1938, the Austrian oil fields were available also, and the expansion of crude oil output was chiefly effected there. Primarily as a result of this expansion, Germany’s domestic output of crude oil increased from approximately 3.8 million barrels in 1938 to almost 12 million barrels in 1944.10 Yet the production of domestic crude oil never equaled in any way the levels attained by Germany’s other major supplier of oil, the synthetic fuel plants.

Inasmuch as natural oil deposits in Germany were so few, long before the war efforts had been made to discover synthetic methods of producing gasoline and oil. In view of the country’s wealth of coal, it was logical to look in this direction for a solution. Both coal and petroleum are mixtures of hydrocarbons, and the problem was how best and most efficiently to isolate these elements from the coal and transmute them into oil. By the time Hitler became chancellor in 1933, four methods of achieving this were either available or in early stages of perfection.

The first process produced benzol, a byproduct of coking. Benzol was used as a fuel in admixture with gasoline. The drawback to increased production of benzol was the fact that it was tied to the quantities of coke that were needed at any given time, and these in turn were determined by the production limits of crude iron.

The second method produced a distillate from lignite coal. Brown or soft coal was gently heated, and the tars and oil were then extracted and distilled into fuel. The end product was of such low quality, however, that only 10 percent could be used as gasoline, with the remaining 90 percent useful only as heating oil and diesel fuel.

A third formula, the Fischer-Tropsch process, was, at that time, still in the research and testing stage. Under this system, coal is compressed into gas which is mixed with hydrogen. By placing this mixture in contact ovens and adding certain catalysts, oil molecules are formed. Further treatment of this primary substance generates fuel, chiefly diesel oil.

Coking and distillation extracted oils and tars from coal, and additional cracking refined them into gasoline. The Fischer-Tropsch process and a fourth method, the hydrogenation process, changed coal directly into gasoline. As coal is a hydrocarbon containing little hydrogen and gasoline is a hydrocarbon with a high hydrogen content, the problem consisted of attaching hydrogen molecules to coal, thereby liquefying it. This was the basis of the hydrogenation process, which required high temperatures and high pressures. By 1933, this method had been thoroughly tested and was ready for large-scale practical application. The advantage of the hydrogenation method was that as primary material it could use the tars from the distillation of both lignite and bituminous coal (although the distillation of the latter was not possible on a large scale until 1943) as well as lignite and bituminous coal directly.11

When the Germans in the 1920s first began considering other sources of fuel, they did so for three reasons. First, the blockade during World War I had taught them how dependent they were on imports of a myriad of essential raw materials and how vulnerable this dependence made them. Second, because of the lost war and the ensuing economic difficulties, Germany was short of hard foreign exchange required for the purchase of foreign oil. And third, rumors were rampant in the world that proven reserves were about to run out. This last worry disappeared with new finds, but the second motive in particular, shortage of foreign exchange, remained and grew under Hitler. It was also Hitler’s determination to make Germany independent from outside sources.12 Furthermore, Germany’s leadership increasingly was concerned with the requirements of a war economy, and after 1938 these concerns occupied a substantial position. Prior to this time, five hydrogenation plants had been constructed, one of which was based on bituminous coal treatment. This plant, Scholven, was located in the Ruhr area; the other four plants at Leuna, Böhlen, Magdeburg, and Zeitz were located in central Germany, adjacent to lignite deposits. The total output of the plants in 1937 was 4.8 million barrels of various grades of petroleum fuels.13

In October 1936, the first of several plans for increased oil production was formulated. It envisioned a production of 36 million barrels of petroleum fuels by October 1938.14 The plan was twice revised, in May and again in December 1937, but the changes did not involve an increase in projected production. They were concerned chiefly with changes in the output mix, allowing for a hefty quantity of aviation fuel, with other types of fuel being reduced.15

To accommodate this increased production, the plants at Scholven and Zeitz were to be expanded, and four new hydrogenation plants were to be erected at Gelsenkirchen, Welheim, and Wesseling in the Ruhr and at Pölitz near Stettin on the Baltic Sea. The scheduled construction time for these projects was 18 months, a goal that turned out to be rather unrealistic. Even more unrealistic were the completion dates assigned to twelve Fischer-Tropsch plants with relatively low production goals; they were to be finished by 1 April 1938. By 1945 only nine of them were operational; they reached their maximum capacity in 1943 with less than 2.8 million barrels.16

Production goals were altered again in the summer of 1938 when Göring set up a new program whose completion was to coincide with the completion of rearmament in 1942-43, in keeping with the plans revealed by Hitler in his November 1937 conference. Greater armaments required larger amounts of fuel, and the so-called Revised Economic Production Plan of 1938 reflected the new needs. Göring called for the production in 1942-43 of almost 88 million barrels of various types of fuels and lubricants. But it was not long before it was realized that a program of such dimensions would require construction steel quantities that simply were not available in an already straitened economy. After several further revisions, the final one of January 1939 called for a production in 1943 of 68 million barrels. The quantities for all fuels were reduced except aviation gasoline, which was to be produced at 100 percent of the amounts provided in Göring’s plan of 1938.17

It was aviation gasoline that played the crucial role in the hydrogenation plant construction program. By the early 1930s, automobile gasoline had an octane reading of 40 and aviation gasoline of 75-80. Aviation gasoline with such high octane numbers could only be refined through a process of distillation of high-grade petroleum. Germany’s domestic oil was not of this quality. Only the lead additive tetraethyl could raise the octane to a maximum of 87. The license for the production of this additive was acquired in 1935 from the American holder of the patents, but without high-grade oil even this additive was not very effective.

Hydrogenation promised a way out. It allowed a gasoline with an octane reading of 60 to 72, and thus high antiknock properties, to be manufactured. With the aid of lead tetraethyl, the octane reading could be raised to 87. High octane gasoline was important, as its antiknock characteristics determined the compression ratio of an engine that used the fuel, and the compression ratio in turn determined the engine’s power.18

A breakthrough in gasoline production occurred in the United States in 1935 when it became technically possible to produce isooctane with a reading of 100 in large quantities. By 1939, both the American and English air forces had begun to use the improved gasoline, and their planes could then be equipped with correspondingly stronger engines. In Germany, also, a method had been discovered to manufacture such a high-test gasoline, but the process was much more complex, cumbersome, and expensive than the American method, which used different primary materials. Due to these difficulties in production, the Luftwaffe until the end of 1938 neglected to insist on the production of high-octane fuel. For this reason until 1945 the German Air Force had no fuel equal to that available in the English-speaking countries.19

How important the new aviation fuel was is demonstrated by the improved performance it made possible: 15 percent higher speed, a 1500-mile longer range for bombers, and an increased altitude of 10,000 feet. Göring attempted to make amends for the past neglect at the end of 1938 when he demanded that the 19 million barrels of aviation fuel included in the Revised Economic Production Plan be manufactured as high-test gasoline equivalent to the quality of isooctane.

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