Today, an economy without oil is inconceivable in a Germany which wishes to remain politically independent. Therefore, German motor fuel must be a reality, even if this entails sacrifice. Therefore, it is urgently necessary that the hydrogenation of coal be continued."
The words are those of Adolf Hitler in 1932. They are not much different from words used in recent days by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and U.S. President Jimmy Carter as both seek to exploit technology in the fight for fuel independence that Carter has called "the moral equivalent of war."
Here in the Ruhr, the heartland of West German coal mining, there is a sense, at least among some old-timers, of technological deja vu; of having been along this path at an earlier time.
Indeed, as the Carter administration sets out on a new multi-billion-dollar program to try to turn coal into gasoline, the West Germans are trying to reconstruct and improve a technique they pioneered 70 years ago, which Hitler later exploited and the Western Allies then ordered shut down after the defeat of Hitler's armies.
In the debate that is growing in the West, especially in the United States, about the feasibility of so-called synthetic fuels, it is often overlooked that during Hitler's Third Reich Germany built a dozen coal-hydrogenation plants that were turning out about 28 million barrels of gasoline annually, 75 percent of German consumption during the war, until Allied bombers demolished the plants in mid-1944.
Today, the process being looked at again here and in the United States is based on the same one first developed in 1909 by the German chemist Friedrich Bergius, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his work.
That process involves mixing coal and small amounts of oil under high pressure and temperature, and then introducing hydrogen to the mixture.
At the Coal Mining Research Institute here, a small research facility is liquefying about a quarter-ton of coal daily and getting about 54 percent of that weight in oil, a figure scientists here say is good result.
About 12 miles from here, at Bottrop, the large West German coal firm, Ruhrkohle A.B., started work a few weeks ago on what will be a $170 million pilot plant that is expected to process about 200 metric tons of coal daily when it starts operating in 1981.
At the state capital at Duesseldorf, plans are under way to have the first big commercial plant in operation, perhaps in 1986 if all goes well at Bottrop.
As in the United States, there is caution and awareness here that the technique is still very expensive - about double the refinery costs of petroleum - and has potential environmental problems. But the effort is seen as "insurance for the future" and, "As of now, the economics appear to be sufficiently within reason to go ahead" with the pilot projects, said Georg Koelling, chief chemist of the Mining Institute.
The history of turning coal into oil, however, is one that demands attention. It is a history dominated by tantalizing visions of independence from foreign suppliers mixed with real-life experience of enormous costs and unpredictable twists of fate.
In 1926, Germany was far ahead of anybody in the field, and the chemical firm of I.G. Farben announced plans to build what eventually would become the huge hydrogenation plant at Leuna. Soon afterward came a cooperative agreement between Farben and Standard Oil of the United States.
Yet, as the late author Joseph Borkin, a former U.S. Justice Department official and Washington-based laywer, wrote in his book "The Crime and Punishment of I.B. Farben," the Depression and the discovery of enormous oil reserves in Texas soon followed, and Standard lost interest in the conversion of coal.
In 1933, however, Farben and the new German leader, Adolf Hitler, signed an agreement for greatly expanded production of synthetic oil. Borkin describes that pact as "a monumental technological achievement in modern power politics."
When the war was over, the Allies basically ruled out any further German work in the field, and the technology sat there with little attention from the West, Koelling said.