National Geographic : 1981 Feb 28
Tosco Foundation in Boulder, Colorado. "If they don't get it, it's almost impossible to undo the damage." A second huge oil-shale deposit lies in the eastern U. S. Known as Devonian shale, it sprawls in a great U-shaped formation from Michigan and Pennsylvania south to Ala bama. Although eastern shale yields less oil per ton than western, the enormous deposit is believed to hold a trillion barrels. A retort designed for lean eastern shales has been developed by the Institute of Gas Technology in Chicago. Known as the Hy tort process, it extracts the oil in a hydrogen rich atmosphere that coaxes as much as 25 gallons from each ton of shale. Both eastern and western shales may someday be extract ed by heating the rock with radio waves or microwaves until the oil liquefies. In remote north-central Alaska, the na tion boasts a third oil-shale deposit. Sketchy geologic reports show it to be vast, and ten tative assays indicate a wide range of oil con tent, from a few gallons a ton to saturated ores that test at 102 gallons. How much oil can shale deliver and when? DOE's Paul Petzrick believes that, with luck, western shale could meet the 1992 shale quota set by the government-400,000 barrels a day-and that its cost would not exceed that of conventional crude. By the year 2000 some see a possibility of millions of barrels a day, the limit being set by water and environmental considerations. Coal Liquids Fueled War Machine When German planes roared aloft late in World War II, they burned gasoline made from coal. Even German "butter" was a syn thetic made from coal. Behind this technology lay nearly a cen tury of intensive research in Europe and America. In the 1800s chemists discovered that coal's complex molecules of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen contained the build ing blocks of nature, capable of being re arranged into thousands of useful products. German scientists observed that coal dif fers from oil primarily in that it contains less than half as much hydrogen. Working with catalysts at high temperatures and pres sures, chemist Friedrich Bergius succeeded in adding hydrogen to coal until it liquefied. He won the 1931 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Two other Germans, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, discovered a catalytic pro cess for converting familiar coal gas into liquid fuel. A dozen Bergius plants and a smaller number using the Fischer-Tropsch technology provided Germany's smorgas bord of coal products in World War II. At war's end the U. S. government orga nized a team of more than a hundred scien tists, headed by Dr. Wilburn C. Schroeder, to uncover the secrets of German synfuel technology. Probing bomb-damaged plants and laboratories, they brought back 175 tons of documents, now under study at Tex as A & M University. The Bureau of Mines built two coal liquefaction plants at Louisiana, Mis souri. Supervised by Dr. Schroeder, they made a costly fuel that success fully powered a diesel locomotive. When the tide of Middle East oil be gan its surge in the early fifties, the Missouri plants shut down. In 1950 South Africa sought to ease its depen dence on foreign oil by building a 10,000-barrel-a day plant based on the Fischer Tropsch method. Halfa pint of oil lies locked in shale book ends polished by a Colorado lapidary. Dark bands indicate rich ore. Alchemy on an awesome scale converts coal into 55,000 barrels of transportfuel and other products each day at a South African plant known as Sasol Two (fol lowing pages). Several United States companies plan similar facilities, while the Department of Energy focuses on development of three competing coal liquefactionprocesses.