Alexander Ho
November 28, 2010

Submitted as coursework for Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2010


With the ongoing debate about possible depletion of oil reserves, the focus on experimenting alternative fuels using unconventional energy sources is spurring interest by many oil giants. The use of alternative fuels to supply the energy needs of the world is not a newly discovered concept. During the 1920s, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed a process to convert coal to liquid fuel. The Third Reich used this process to transform carbon monoxide and hydrogen into diesel fuel used during World War II. The significance of their discovery helped derived the use of synthetic fuels (synfuel) into the aviation and automotive industry in the 1950s. The environment impacts are less significant due to the low nitrogen and sulfur emitted compared to conventional diesel fuel. However, the use of coal as a source of synfuel are making environmentalists concerned with the positive impacts on reducing the overall carbon footprint.


Qatar, a nation of 800,000 people is at the forefront of experimenting synfuels from natural gas. Big oil giants are investing heavily on synfuels as the transportation sector is a big proponent on using synfuel seeking to reduce carbon emissions. The direction for these companies is aiming to derive a new form of diesel from natural gas that can help sustain the transportation sector when oil reserves are depleted. Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum are working together to help produce cleaner diesel from natural gas with an anticipated investment of $7 billion dollars over the next several years. This would be the largest single investment by Exxon Mobil’s history. There is a pilot plant in Oklahoma to test gas to liquid production of synthetic fuel in attempts to become an alternative to oil. Qatar’s hope is to turn gas to liquid into an “internationally viable fuel”. Both Shell and Exxon Mobil are forming a venture with Qatar Petroleum to produce more than 294,000 barrels of synthetic fuel, as this number will continue to grow rapidly in the future.

Since the discovery by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch to convert coal to liquid fuel, the process has been refined to such purity that the end products are nitrogen and sulfur free. There has been tremendous investment in both academia and by the oil giants to develop alternatives to traditional oil based fuel. The countries that have great natural gas and coal deposits like South Africa, Qatar and Malaysia are currently developing coal to liquid (CTL) and gas to liquid (GTL) plants for usage. The biggest GTL plant is located in Qatar known as the Pearl GTL project, a joint venture between Shell and Qatar Petroleum. The plant is expected to produce up to 140,000 barrels of synthetic fuel per day. A leading company heading the commercialization of synfuel is Sasol, located in South Africa. During the apartheid, embargoes were in place and Sasol refined the Fischer-Tropsch process to produce 160,000 barrels of synfuel without any imported oil. The economics of any CTL or GTL project aren’t feasible when oil prices drop below $35 barrel. However, the oil prices are being traded around $83 dollars per barrel. As oil prices increase, the viability of synthetic fuels becomes an attractive alternate source.

To secure energy independence from oil imports from the Middle East, the United States are looking at alternative sources of energy such as procuring renewable energy generation and investing in development of synthetic fuel plants. However, environmentalists are concerned with synfuels because it generates more carbon dioxide than any oil or natural gas. Environmentalists contend that using synfuels still produce hydrocarbons that contribute to global warming. Furthermore, without carbon capture sequestration; the production of synfuels might have a very bleak future. There are other drawbacks besides environmental considerations such as the large capital investment needed to build the plant. If the price of oil drops dramatically, the synfuel plants are "rendered useless."


Synfuels provide a viable alternative to traditional oil based fuels. Although there is a significant capital investment involved, as long as oil is being traded above $35 per barrel, the transportation sector can see increasing trends of CTL and GTL petroleum fuels. With the ongoing debate about the depletion of oil reserves, development of synfuels can readily be deployed without raising panic with simple modification to the transportation and energy infrastructure. However, environmentalists argue that development of CTL and GTL plants will have a larger global warming footprint unless carbon capture sequestration is applied. As a proven example, Sasol help solved their energy crisis during the apartheid period when embargoes were placed. As we look into the future, synfuels are a great alternative to traditional oil based fuels once the environmental impacts are mitigated and addressed.

© Alexander Ho. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Stranges, "Germany's Synthetic Fuel Industry, 1927-1945," in The German Chemical Industry in the Twentieth Century, ed. by J. E. Lesch (Springer, 2000).

[2] B. H. Davis and M. L. Occelli, Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis, Catalysts and Catalysis (Elsevier, 2006).

[3] M. L. Wald, "Search for New Oil Sources leads to Processed Coal," New York Times, 5 Jul 06.

[4] S. Reed and A. Stron, "What the US Can Learn From Sasol," Business Week, 27 Feb 06.

[5] S. Romero, "A New Way to Make Old Diesel," New York Times, 18 Jan 06.