Not Counting Chemistry: How We Misread the History of 20th-Century Science and Technology

Drawing of the enshrouded construction of the Chicago pile 1. Image courtesy of the Argonne National Laboratory.

Drawing of the enshrouded construction of the Chicago pile 1. Image courtesy of the Argonne National Laboratory.

At the level of studies of use and historical significance—which are related but not the same—chemistry has many claims to be extremely well represented. Take, for example, World War II, which is usually discussed in terms of atomic bombs and V-2 rockets; these contributions are summed up in the phrase “the physicists’ war.” As many historians from Thomas P. Hughes to, most recently, Pap A. Ndiaye have pointed out, chemistry, chemists, and chemical corporations were central to the bomb project. Yet there is much more to be said. It is not at all obvious that the atomic bomb made a positive contribution to the war; in fact the bomb became a very expensive way to destroy two Japanese cities that could easily have been destroyed by a couple more large conventional air raids. The V-2 was without question a major setback to the German war economy: its production killed more people in the manufacturing plant than its deployment as a weapon killed in the field.

A largely forgotten achievement, on the contrary, was the great coal hydrogenation works that kept Germany fighting in that war. Without various gasoline-from-coal technologies Germany could not have fought World War II as it did. For the Nazis, self-sufficiency in fuel was a key objective, with the establishment of synthetic oil production a central element of the four-year plan of 1936 and with the appointment of Hermann Göring as “fuel commissar.” I. G. Farben’s hydrogenation process was selected as the primary model, and I. G. Farben built and ran many plants, including one for the new coal-based chemical complex at Auschwitz that would be severely bombed toward the end of the war. The process involved high-pressure hydrogenation with a catalyst under conditions that could be adjusted to produce a particular product—for example, aviation gasoline. The process combined, as it were, the making of a crude and the refining of it. The process was pioneered by Friedrich Bergius, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in 1931. As ever, there were alternatives, including the Fischer-Tropsch process, which involved the hydrogenation of carbon monoxide rather than coal. By 1944 synthetic fuel production was up to 3 million tons, or 25.5 million barrels per year. But the basic processes predated World War I. 

Although the technology of coal hydrogenation was taken to many countries, it never became a global enterprise. By the early 1920s the key patents were controlled by I. G. Farben in Germany, but a decade later the international rights were controlled jointly by I. G. Farben, the American oil company Standard Oil, the Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell, and the British chemical combine Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). ICI first built a plant in Billingham, England, where it produced gasoline from 1935 to 1958, and added a second one at Heysham in Lancashire during the war. On its defeat Germany was banned from hydrogenating coal; in 1949 its unused plants were ordered to be dismantled. The Soviet Union took four of these plants to Siberia. In Soviet-controlled East Germany, isolated from Western oil markets, coal continued to be hydrogenated until the 1960s. Spain meanwhile developed a synthetic fuel program at Puertollano following a 1944 deal between the pro-Axis Spanish government and Germany. In 1950 Spain’s government signed new deals for technology with BASF and others; production started in 1956 and lasted until 1966.

Another case was coal-rich South Africa, where in 1955 the Sasol company started producing gasoline using the Fischer-Tropsch process. Following the Arab oil embargo of 1973, Sasol II was built; the cutoff of supplies from Iran after the Iranian revolution of 1979 led to the building of Sasol III. Like the German plants, the Sasol complex was bombed, in this case not by the United Nations but by Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, in June 1980. The attack marked an important point in the development of a guerrilla war against the Apartheid regime. Racist South Africa, run by its National Party, produced 150,000 barrels of gasoline per day, twice the level of synthetic fuel production achieved in Nazi Germany. Yet coal hydrogenation never produced gasoline that could compete in world markets; its price was always above that of gasoline made from crude oil, and its expense precluded its use except as a tool of autarkic governments. Nevertheless it deserves a place in histories of the 20th century because without it Nazi Germany and South Africa could hardly have held on to their power as long as they did.