Coal to Petrol Plant at Billingham

One of the pictures shows the process route, which (a) enables one to understand what the pictures mean and (b) describes a technology that is now lost. The photograph shows one of the liquid phase “stalls” at Billingham. Liquid phase, in this case, means that the oil stayed as a liquid.

Each stall contained a set of three reactors in which hydrogen reacted with a coal oil slurry, whereby part of the coal formed more oil. The oil was separated off from the unreacted coal, and sent round to a distillation column. The lightest fraction from the distillation column was similar to petrol and mixed with the output from the second stage of the process,

In the second stage, the fraction of the oil, from the distillation column, with an intermediate boiling point was sent to the two vapour phase hydrogenation reactors. More petrol was made. It will be apparent that the whole process was very complex and can only be understood by working through the diagram.

Images and details courtesy of Fred Starr.

10 thoughts on “Coal to Petrol Plant at Billingham

  1. Oil from Coal has been a major source of the oil industry in South Africa since the early sixties. They now have three major oil from Coal Plants supplying the major part of the South African oil industry for petrol. refining. The plants are named SASOL 1,2,3 plants. I worked on the SAsol 1 plant in the sixties estimating plan tenders for the Sasol 1 project, for my Company VECOR who were the largest Fabricating and Projects Company In Africa. They are now in joint venture with the Middlesbrough Company DORMAN LONG, and have been renamed DORBYL, a mixture of both companies names.The reason South Africa went over to the more expensive process of OIL from COAL was because they did not have the oil available to them either from their own wells or World Oil Companies, due to the embargo placed on them due to the Aparthied policy of the National Government.

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  2. Germany built 18 coal to petrol plants of the hydrogenator type, which supplied 95% of Germany’s aviation fuel during WWII.

    For ICI the importance of their construction of the hydrogenator plant was that it led them to investigate how best to use the waste hydrocarbon gases coming from the process. ICI could have simply burnt these for heating purposes, but Billingham realised that they could be used to produce hydrogen using the newly developed steam reforming process. This hydrogen was then used back in the coal hydrogenator.

    The steam reforming catalyst developed at Billingham allowed them to become world leaders in this technology.The work continues on Bellasis Lane by Johnson Mathey who bought up this part of Billingham’s know how.


  3. As explained in today’s note, the Bergius process, as a method of making petrol, which reacts coal with hydrogen died out, after WWII,as it was too expensive. A big problem was the need to operate the process at very high pressure at a fairly high temperature. And as Frank Mee has mentioned the mixture of product was not exactly health giving and needed a lot of additional processing.

    The Fischer Tropsch process was used in South Africa, and reacts carbon monoxide and hydrogen to make diesel and lubricating oil, is quite different. These two gases can be made from natural gas so the F-T process is currently being used in the Middle East to make low sulphur diesel. So much is being made there is a glut on the market.


  4. Mr Starr you said that this technology was lost but I thought it was still used by SASOL (South African Oil Co) on its coal fields? I could be wrong.. diagrams great.


  5. The picture dates from about 1936.

    I will be passing on the recollection that some people were more interested in status and (possibly) money than helping to produce high quality aviation fuel. What was being done was reprehensible as the hydrogenation plants were not very productive, even when working at maximum capacity. They were eventually used to process coal tar byproducts rather than coal to increase output.

    The plant at Billingham was similar in concept to the Bergius process used in German during the war and ICI had acquired the rights in the early 1930s. Over there expense was no object as Germany knew that it would be cut off from importing oil if war broke out. The Billingham plant was also built as insurance, but it turned out that a vast amount of money was needed to build and make it a success. It was only the political support from the RAF, who insisted that high octane fuel was vital that ensured that there would be a buyer for the fuel.

    The Germans also developed the Fischer Tropsch process but that was only good for diesel fuel, lubricating oils and other chemical industry products. We did not use it in Britain, The F-T process used and uses carbon monoxide and hydrogen as reactants, which are easily made from coal, oil or natural gas.In South Africa these gases were made in a Lurgi, high pressure gasifier. In the Middle East it is currently used to produce low sulphur diesel.

    ICI had real difficulties, financially, in getting into both ammonia synthesis and then petrol from coal in the 1920s and 30s. What must have helped was the discovery of anhydrite underneath the site which allowed Billingham to move into the manufacturer of sulphuric acid, ammonium sulphate, and plaster board


    • Fred, Wartime was not all waving the flag and baring your chest to take the bullet, although there was Censorship and news was suppressed the speed we got to know things was impressive. Troops were often sent in to assist in heavy bombing strikes or plain refusal to work, they came on leave and talked. We all had the local Spiv who could get anything for a price, black markets were rife, strikes on the docks or in ship building and engineering known about. Shadow factories were built and people sent to work there with little leave, my Father in law was sent to Clitheroe to a shadow factory for ICI and got home very rarely so I am told. It was a desperate time, some in safe billets worried about family in the danger spots as Teesside was then, it brought out the best in some and the worst in others, a little polishing the ego would not be noticeable, that is life.


  6. My dad, Harry Appleton, was General Foreman for Oil Works. He told me a story that, during the war, a particular process shift would have a much better product than others so, one night he followed the Process Foreman soon after the shift had started, the process foreman went to the Distillation column and adjusted a valve for one of the reflux tray sections which, changed the quality of the final product. At the end of his shift he would adjust the valve back again. (My dad was very well versed in the process side of things, his brother Cliff being a research chemist in the research department), he confronted the process foreman and threatened to expose him if he did not make it common knowledge what he was doing. It’s hard to believe that during a war that someone would care more about his ego than the safety of his country. The process foreman let management know after that.


  7. This is absolutely fascinating. What is the date of the picture? And since I am not a chemist, was the process similar to the one used in South Africa, or a different one? Further historical detail much appreciated; please feel free to communicate offline – contact for my email address (to someone who after almost four years living here now feel very much a Teessider)


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