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Oil from Coal and Other Synthetic Fuels

Oil from Coal and Other Synthetic Fuels

Germany has no oil reserves but does have a lot of coal and a vigorous chemical industry. In the 1920s they developed a method of making fuel oil from coal using the Fischer-Tropsch process (or Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis). This takes in a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, passing them over a catalyst (usually iron or cobalt based but nickel and ruthenium have also been used). Using this process you can make a synthetic petroleum substitute for use as lubrication oil or fuel. The first commercial production of petrol from coal may well have been at a works in Newcastle in about 1930(see Newcastle Benzol Co under 'Oil Companies' below) and a German chemist by the name of Alfred August Aicher (who became a British subject) obtained several patents for improvements to the process in the 1930s and 1940s. Aicher set up a company in 1930 called Synthetic Oils Ltd. (There is no connection with the Canadian company of the same name.) and from 1940 he was associated with a company called Petrocarbon Ltd.

In Britain Benzole (extracted from coal tar) proved to be a popular additive as a 50-50 mix with petrol. Benzol is made up mainly of benzene and toluene, the latter being an ingredient of TNT it was of particular importance during wartime. During World War One plants were set up to produce it for explosives, after the war these plants set up National Benzole to sell it, first to oil companies later as a 50/50 mix with petrol under their own brand. There is an illustration of the distillation towers at a benzole plant in the section Lineside Industries - Gas Works. Many such plants were described as a Naphtha Refinery.

Also in Britain with the problems of oil supply experienced in World War One there some interest in producing motor fuels from coal, of which the UK had plentiful supplies (although from a ton of coal you can recover only about two gallons of petrol, plus a lot of coal gas and coke). The photo below shows a coal to oil plant built by ICI at Billingham in the 1930s to manufacture synthetic petrol. This plant is nicely compact and allows regular visits by coal wagons and tank wagons, both sharing a common siding if space is tight (note the coal wagons can remain at the end of the siding whilst tankers are filled closer to the entrance). During the later part of World War Two the plant changed to using creosote in place of coal.

Fig ___ Model of the ICI oil plant at Billingham

Model of the ICI oil plant at Billingham

During World War Two German and Japan both used the Fischer-Tropsch process to produce fuels and lubricants, in Germany these were known as ersatz (which is German for substitute). One side effect was that they found these oils were less liable to freeze during the Russian winter (petroleum oils contain waxes which do freeze, or rather thicken, at low temperatures).

Synthetic oil fuel fell from favour after World War Two as supplies of cheap petroleum oil became plentiful, however countries with limited access to the cheap oil developed the process further (even today a lot of the diesel in South Africa is made from synthetic oils). The non-freezing qualities of the synthetics were of some interest however and 1961 a firm called Morris's (best known for their lubricants) developed a product called Scyllan which could be added to diesel fuel to prevent the waxes in the fuel thickening and causing problems in cold weather.

As a component for lubricating oils the synthetics have remained of considerable interest, and modern synthetic lubrication oils are widely considered preferable to mineral oils.

It is estimated that we have now consumed about a third of the available petroleum oil and hence in the future synthetic oils (which can be made from coal or vegetable matter) will become increasingly important.

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