“OPERATION PAPERCLIP” CRITICAL TO COAL-TO-FUEL PROGRAM
Coal Bin article by Harold Hough
In the dying days of the Nazi Third Reich, America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was scouring Germany for a few important Germans. No, they weren’t looking for Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels or Goering. They were looking for Ernst Donath, Max Josenhaus, and Helmut Pichler. In many ways they were more important to keeping Germany in the war in 1944 and 1945 than the Nazi leadership. But the intelligence agents wanted to offer them jobs, not put them on trial.
A little known wartime project, Operation Paperclip, was the link between the end of WW II, the beginning of the Cold War, and today’s synthetic fuel programs. It brought the best German synthetic fuel experts to the United States instead of allowing the Soviets to capture them. It also built the foundation for America’s synthetic fuel program today.
While Operation Paperclip’s best known capture, Wernher Von Braun, went on to fame as the head of America’s Apollo project, others were just as important, but unknown to the American public. Scientists like Lippisch and Tessmann were critical to America’s post war aerospace projects and their inspiration can even be seen in the Space Shuttle.
But, these weren’t the only German scientists American intelligence officers were looking for. Donath, Josenhaus, Schapppert, Bretschnieder, Frese, Alberts, and Pichler were in demand because they were the scientists who kept the fuel tanks of Germany’s tanks and aircraft full even though Germany had no petroleum deposits. They were so successful that when General George Patton ran out of fuel in his race across France in 1944, he would drain German tanks of this synthetic fuel to keep going. And, all this fuel came from coal.
Making fuel from coal isn’t new or that complicated. The original process was discovered by German scientists Franz Fisher and Hans Tropsch in the 1920s (hence the name Fisher-Tropsch Process). They discovered that carbon monoxide and hydrogen could be converted into liquid hydrocarbons through a chemical reaction. These feedstocks could be provided from coal. And, since Germany had rich coal reserves, it proved to be practical for them.
This synthetic fuel was critical for Germany in World War Two. During the war, synthetic fuel production reached more than 124,000 barrels per day from 25 plants. That’s why the US Congress passed the Synthetic Liquid Fuels Act in 1944 and why America was so anxious to bring these scientists back to the United States after the war. Helmut Pichler had been Fisher’s assistant and was the co-inventor of the medium pressure process that was more economical. He and the others went to work for the Bureau of Mines for $6 a month plus room and board in 1946. They got a raise to $500 a month in 1947.
The Bureau first consolidated its synthetic fuel research at the Bruceton Experiment Station 13 miles south of Pittsburgh. The pilot plant had a capacity of only 5 gallons a day, but it helped scientists develop different catalysts.
The next plant was near St Louis in Louisiana, Missouri. This plant employed 400 workers. The plant started operations in 1949 and produced 300 barrels of synthetic fuel a day.
But, that was just the beginning. The plant soon started turning North Dakota lignite into enough fuel for serious testing by the Armed Forces. During the next four years, 1.5 million gallons were produced at the Missouri plant that was used in tests of many different types of vehicles including diesel locomotives.
During this period, three commercial plants were also built in Kansas, Texas, and Pennsylvania. They had a combined initial production capability of 14,500 barrels per day.
But an economical synthetic fuel industry wasn’t to be. In the early 1950s, a new oil discovery in West Texas was coming on line. That, combined with technical problems led Congress to stop subsidies in the late 1950s.
Although the current administration seems unlikely to push synthetic fuel-from-coal development, the technology is in place if petroleum prices ever make it practical. And, much of that technology will be due to the search for German scientists in the last days of World War Two.