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Kasum, Emil (ed.) / The Wisconsin engineer
Volume 52, Number 2 (November 1947)

Mitchell, Robert
Petroleum reprieve,   p. 10


Page 10


Petroleum Reprieve
                           by Robert Mitchell m'48
O  UR present known petroleum reserves are twenty-one
    billion barrels. Our consumption is one-and-seven-
tenths billion barrels per year. How many years will it
last? By simple arithmetic, it will last a little over twelve
years-but it is not that simple. Our consumption rate is
not constant, and the pumping rate of producing wells
cannot be so closely regulated. It will take half a century
to bleed much of this oil out of the ground.
  In the face of such statistics, oil-men have become very
thoughtful. They knew that the Germans had been in a
tougher situation in the last war, and had fared rather
well in that aspect. They knew that the Germans had
prepared for such supply stresses long before the war
through research in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. They
had perfected the "Fischer-Tropsch" process of convert-
ing their plentiful coal into a myriad of synthetic hydro-
carbons, as well as other more ponderous processes that
accomplished the same end result. Why could we not
do it?
                      High Cost
  As is usually the case, it was not as simple as it seemed
to copy the German industries. The reasons were eco-
nomic and quality, rather than technical reasons. We
knew how they did it, but we also knew that the product
was expensive and that their fuels had low cetane and
octane numbers. The great amount of Scotch blood
coursing in American veins would not permit the purchase
of such a low-grade and expensive insurance policy. Be-
fore application of synthetic hydrocarbons could be made
to our problem, it had to be suited to our economic and
quality standards.
  Going to the bottom of the problem, petroleum engi-
neers found that the answer to the prohibitive cost of
German gasoline (18<- per gallon as compared to the
6< petroleum gasoline in America) lay largely in the cost
of the oxygen used in the primary phase. This problem
has been most emphatically solved. Oxygen producing
plants capable of a two-dollar per ton product are being
built at present in large numbers. They are being built
close enough to the consumers to permit direct delivery
in place of the ponderous cylinder delivery of the seventy-
dollar, high-purity oxygen, This took past and subse-
quent developments in fuel engineering off the calculation
sheets and the drawing boards and put them in the field-
where they belong.
                       Quality
  Quality was still a problem. The answer must lie in
better control of the formation of the synthetic hydro-
carbons. The temperature of the reacting constituents
was recognized as a factor determining the nature of the
reaction. Since the combination itself produced the heat,
it became apparent that the heat should be removed from
the mass at the point of major reaction. The solution of
the problem was a unique development of American engi-
neers. It was not a simple convection or conduction proc-
ess due to the fact that the catalyst was a solid. In order
to visualize the solution, one must form a picture of a
finely divided solid which is boiling like a liquid. This
solid is the catalyst, well pulverized, which is capable of
removing the heat of reaction as fast as it is released. The
rate of heat removal can be controlled to give different
properties to the product.
  The Fischer-Tropsch process can be utilized to produce
synthetic petroleum products from natural gas or any
rank coal. Coal reserves of all ranks amount to 3.2 trillion
tons (known). Natural gas is one of our most plentiful
fuels-so plentiful, in fact, that it is often considered a
nuisance in the petroleum producing areas.' It was esti-
mated in Fortune magazine recently* that 900 million
tons of coal would be necessary to replace, through the
Fischer-Tropsch process, our yearly consumption of pe-
troleum products. Approximately 300 million tons per
year could be used to supply natural gas users with a su6-
stitute fuel of high heating value. This latter product
would be a by-product of the processed coal as shown in
the flow-chart. Obviously, it would be a God-send to
many cities now using the low quality heating gases-or
which of necessity are using other fuels.
                Catalytic Condensation
  The much-referred-to Fischer-Tropsch process is the
catalytic condensation of hydrogen with carbon-monoxide
'Fortune, March, 1947-page 89.
                 (continued on page 32)
THTE WISCONSIN ENGINEER
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