A Texas Prof Says He's Got 'the Formula'—but D.C. Calls His Budget a Synfuel Waste
04/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
The time: The last days of the Third Reich. The scene: A charred landscape of bombed cities and fleeing soldiers and refugees. Accompanying the vanguard of the Allied armies on the march into Germany was a special detachment called the T (for target) Force, who raced into smoldering ruins to seize scientific and industrial files, hoping to find the secrets of German rocketry, blueprints for atomic power and details of the Nazis' enormous advances in the production of synthetic fuels. In many cities, the T-Force found the fleeing Germans had destroyed their papers. Yet hundreds of thousands of documents describing the top-secret processes for converting coal into liquid fuel were seized. In the euphoria that followed the end of the war and the glut of oil from the Mideast in the early '50s, the documents on coal liquefaction were ignored and allowed to scatter into dusty archives and private hands. But 30 years later, startling changes in the world energy picture suddenly endowed the moldering Nazi papers with new value.
Although that scenario has some eerie similarities to the recent Marlon Brando and George C. Scott movie, The Formula, it is fact, not fiction. In the past seven years more than half a million pages of documents from the German synthetic fuel program have been collected at Texas A&M University in College Station, 97 miles from Houston. "We have assembled the most minute details available," says Kurt Irgolic, 42, associate director of the university's Center for Energy and Mineral Resources. "We could save the developers of synfuel plants millions of dollars." But only 10 percent of the information has been indexed; the other 90 percent is therefore virtually inaccessible. In 1977 Texas A&M requested a $900,000 Department of Energy grant, but the funding was refused, and since President Ronald Reagan's decision to slash the federal synfuel program, prospects for government funds seem dimmer than ever. "In the last six months we've had 35 or 40 industry representatives come to us to find out how the Germans solved some particular problems," says Irgolic. "Sometimes we can help, but if we haven't indexed it already, there's no way on earth we can find what they need in all those thousands of pages."
Although the general chemical process by which the Germans converted coal into liquid fuel is well-known, Irgolic says their 10-year record of operating problems in the largest coal liquefaction program in history could be a major asset in research and development. At least one government official agrees. "The trick to all this right now is not the recipe, but what pots and pans you cook it in," says Carl Di Bella, a synthetic fuel expert in the Department of Energy. "I'm sure there are hundreds of papers in the German documents that would be invaluable to us, especially in the area of mechanical design." The chairman of A&M's Geoscience Council, Houston oilman Michel Halbouty, was a key influence on Reagan's decision to cut the synfuel program, but even he recommends that Irgolic's project get the federal funds it needs. "It doesn't cost that much," says Halbouty, "and we might find some things that will help us tremendously."
Irgolic and his colleagues at Texas A&M are particularly miffed because of how much time and effort they have already invested in the documents. University historians began the search for the far-flung German documents in the early 1970s with $300,000 from private sources, including Dow Chemical, Union Carbide and Diamond Shamrock. The college agreed to let the DOE put any resulting data on the computer at its Technical Information Center in Oak Ridge, Tenn. in return for a government promise to make the information available to whoever could use it. But the DOE has declined all along to contribute financially. "They are convinced we already know what's in the documents," says Irgolic, "and I know we don't but I can't make them listen."
The Austrian-born Irgolic, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1964 and became a naturalized citizen four years ago, urges funding for his program on patriotic grounds. "I doubt that we can become completely independent of foreign oil," he concedes, pointing out that synthetic fuel would probably cost as much as 50¢ more per gallon than consumers are now paying for gasoline—and that some 120 plants, each costing between $2 and $3 billion, would be needed to completely replace the more than six million barrels of oil a day which the U.S. imports. "It's unrealistic to think coal can solve our problems entirely. To be really independent we have to use everything—alcohol, solar, many other systems," he says. "But we have a 500-year supply of coal in this country. I know the documents we have could make life much easier for those who are trying to build liquefaction plants. But they learn so slowly at the Department of Energy."