Chemical Engineering Professor Receives $57,000 Grant

  Professor Calvin H. Bartholomew, Head of the BYU Catalysis Laboratory, and Professor of Chemical Engineering at Brigham Young University received an $57,000 grant this week from Syntroleum and Sasol Corporations to investigate the history of the synthetic fuel industry. This study will focus on technological developments in the venerable Fischer-Tropsch synthesis originally developed by German scientists before World War II to produce diesel fuel from coal. 

Professor Bartholomew and his students will be translating German documents relating to Fischer-Tropsch technology which became available only recently through the efforts of Professor Anthony Stranges of Texas A&M University, Mr. Ed Koper of Sasol Technology, and Dr. Steve LeViness of the Syntroleum Corporation. The BYU work will include the preparation of several comprehensive reviews of important Fischer-Tropsch catalyst and process technologies. 

The Fischer-Tropsch synthesis was discovered by Professor Franz Fischer and Dr. Hans Tropsch of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1925 and through their efforts was commercialized in Germany in the following two decades. In this process, syngas produced from coal is converted on cobalt or iron catalysts to liquid hydrocarbons. Fischer-Tropsch (FT) plants became important sources of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel for Germany during World War II and for South Africa (Sasol) from 1950 to the present. Until the Oil Embargo of 1973 there was little interest in FT in the U.S. or Europe because of the high cost of producing liquid fuels from coal. However, as a result of extensive research and development activities in the past three decades, a new FT-based industry for converting natural gas in remote locations to a premium, sulfur-free diesel fuel has been born and is being pursued by large oil giants such as Shell and Exxon-Mobil. 

The Syntroleum Corporation located in Tulsa Oklahoma is a leader in the development of a new processes for converting gas to diesel fuel. Dr. Steve LeViness, technical director of pilot plants at Syntroleum has worked closely with Professor Stranges of Texas A&M to make an extensive collection of early literature describing FT technologies developed by German, British, and U.S. scientists and engineers from about 1920 through 1990 available on However, this collection is only a small fraction of the enormous quantity of documents describing FT technologies that were captured from the Germans just after WWII and saved on microfilm. 

In a recent initiative co-sponsored by Syntroleum and Sasol/Sasol-Chevron, the 307 microfilm reels from the U.S. Technical Oil Mission (TOM), which have been collected and stored at Texas A&M, were digitally scanned to 340 CD-ROMS (87.4 gigabytes in total). The availability of this valuable resource provides new opportunities for documenting in greater detail than previously possible the earlier technological developments in FTS. A careful documentation of the previous work has important historical value; furthermore, it should provide a basis for understanding the scope and magnitude of the previous German work and access to valuable, unique scientific observations or technological developments. The new grant funded jointly by Syntroleum and Sasol will enable Professor Bartholomew and several students at BYU with fluency in German to extract valuable insights into Fischer-Tropsch research and practice in Germany and combine them into comprehensive reviews of 80 years of FT science and practice. 

Professor Bartholomew has conducted research on catalyst technologies for 35 years and on Fischer Tropsch catalysts for 25 years. He is also fluent in the German language, having served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany from 1962 to 1965. 

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