The US Bureau of Mines's synthetic fuel programme, 1920–1950s: German connections and American advances

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This essay examines the first 30 years of the US Bureau of Mines' synthetic fuel programme during which time Arno C. Fieldner (1881–1966), the Bureau's chief chemist in Washington, DC, established the direction of its fuel research. Fieldner was a world-renowned authority on coal combustion, whose technological style of coal research emphasized the potential applications of the research. He was a keen observer of international developments in coal research and made their study an essential and important part of the Bureau's synthetic liquid fuel programme. International developments, particularly Germany's coal-to-oil or synthetic liquid fuel industry, continued to interest the Bureau during the 1930s–1940s, and, after the Second World War, seven German synthetic fuel scientists came to the USA under Project Paperclip to assist in the construction and operation of the Bureau's coal hydrogenation (liquefaction) and Fischer-Tropsch demonstration plants in Louisiana, Missouri. The two plants were the centrepiece of the Bureau's $87ยท6 million post-war synthetic fuel programme. During their period of operation from 1949 to 1953 the plants successfully converted American coals to synthetic fuel, and although they were much more efficient than the older German plants, the economics of the conversion became a matter of considerable debate. The Bureau accomplished its objective, however. It had demonstrated the technological feasibility of converting domestic coals to petroleum-like liquids, but the newly elected congress, showing little interest in continuing the programme, ended its financial support and permanently shut down the Missouri operation in 1953.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of History, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, 77843-4236, USA

Publication date: January 1, 1997

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