Synthetic fuels offer energy hope

October 20, 2007|By DONALD CURRIER

In the spring of 1944, I was a navigator on a B-24 crew in the 15th Air Force flying out of a base in Italy. In April of that year the 15th Air Force began the strategic campaign to eliminate the main source of German petroleum products (POL). The principal targets were the oil facilities at Ploesti, Romania and the associated storage and transportation infrastructure in the Balkans.

By the end of July, we had pretty much destroyed that source of energy. Next in the oil campaign, in concert with the heavy bomber forces in the 8th Air Force stationed in England, we turned our attention to the synthetic fuel plants in Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. By the late fall of 1944, the German forces were starving for oil.

But they were not yet done. Saving all of their remaining POL stores and their tanks and guns, they launched one more desperate offensive in the west, hoping to get a negotiated peace with us Americans, British and French. We know it as the Battle of the Bulge. It failed and the war in Europe ended with the unconditional surrender of the Axis forces on May 8, 1944.


After the war ended, we made haste to collect all the technical intelligence we could about the German war effort. Their missile technology was first priority, but there was a lot of interest in the ability of the Germans to synthesize liquid fuels from coal. This technology, known as coal to liquid fuels (CTL), was invented by two German scientists in the mid 1920s, Drs. Frans Fischer and Hans Tropsch. The Germans, who had no significant sources of petroleum, developed the process commercially so that by the late 1930s they were producing several hundred thousand tons of synthetic fuels annually.

American interest in the Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis (FTS) led the U.S. Bureau of Mines to undertake a research project in Pittsburgh in 1948, but it was cancelled in 1950 because of economic considerations. The world was awash in new oil finds. Even we in the U.S. had plenty of oil.

The Mideast was just beginning to come on line, there was no OPEC to set prices and the environmentalists were not controlling our energy destiny. Oil was selling at about $5 per barrel and there was no economic reason to spend government funds on synthetic fuels.

Other countries were not as fortunate, energy-wise. South Africa, with few oil reserves and a strict embargo by most nations against its racial policies, turned to synthetic fuels for survival. They improved the FTS process to the point where today 80 percent of South Africa's POL needs are met by synthetic fuels. Other countries are using the FTS process to create liquid fuels from natural gas-, a process that is even cheaper and easier than CTL.

Today, the price of oil is $83 per barrel. In numerous test runs the estimated cost of producing a barrel of synfuel is about $35. The technology is proven, the output is clean, and the use is interchangeable with petroleum derived fuels. The U.S. Air Force is currently flying B-52s using CTL fuels and the army is ready to adopt synfuel for its military vehicles when they are available. Best of all, the U.S. has enormous reserves of coal and natural gas.

It is easy to see we could achieve oil independence for the United States in about 10 years if we push the production of synfuel, making it a sort of Manhattan Project. This is a good thing, but let us look beyond this worthy goal to an even greater long-term strategic security issue.

I can think of four countries in the world today that have lots of oil reserves and who I consider as possible strategic enemies. They are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia. Their coffers are bulging with petrodollars and they are using those dollars in ways that are designed to "buy" friends who then may be induced to act against our long-range goal of building a peaceful world.

The economic consequences of American and other friendly countries cutting back drastically on oil purchases will provoke the expected economic reaction. They will lower prices and offer other incentives to try to destroy the growing synfuel industry.

If we are smart, we will not let this happen, because we know the consequences if we abandon our oil independence. And the rewards are even greater. As the petrodollars are reduced in the hands of our strategic enemies, they will have far less to hand out to their "clients." We, in turn, will have far more national income to pursue our own objectives or to raise the incomes of our own people.

No matter where we get our energy, lower prices at the pump mean more disposable income in our collective pockets!

Donald R. Currier is a Smithsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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