September 7th, 2005

Coal-to-Liquid Technologies

In an attempt to battle pollution, energy shortages, and high prices, the U.S. Government is looking at ways to develop alternative fuels. One of the technologies gaining interest and attention from researchers and energy producers is turning coal into liquid fuels. The coal-to-liquid process (also known as gas-to-liquids technology or GTL) gasifies coal to cleanse it of impurities. Producing distillate fuels from coal can supplement the use of crude oil, and lessen dependence on foreign oil supplies. This should help to reduce oil prices.

At a research forum held last month, at Stonewall Resort, in Walkersville, West Virginia, William Harrison, a top advisor in the military’s Clean Fuel Initiative stated, “With West Virginia’s coal reserves equaling 70 billion barrels of oil, perhaps West Virginia could be the new Kuwait”. Dr. Richard Bajura, Director of West Virginia University’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy added, Liquefying coal “offers the promise of starting new industries in West Virginia that could also increase demand for West Virginia coal.”

One company helping to lead the way into making the GTL process more mainstream is Rentech, Incorporated. Rentech is the developer and licensor of a patented and proprietary Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids process for conversion of synthesis gas made from natural gas, industrial off-gas, or solid carbon-bearing materials (coal) into high-value fuels and chemicals. Two of the high-value fuels and chemicals produced are clean burning, ultra-low-sulfur, diesel fuels, and methane for fuel cells.

Fischer Tropsch process formula

Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The original formula describing the Fischer-Tropsch process. The procedure was discovered by scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch at Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in the 1920s, Basically, methane which is released from coal by heating, combines with oxygen to produce complex hydrocarbons (liquid fuel) and water. The advantage of this process is the ability to produce liquid fuel suitable for internal combustion engines from a solid feedstock such as coal. Variations of this process can also be used to produce either Syngas (Synthetic Natural Gas) or Hydrogen!

Rentech is working to make the GTL products more accessible in the United States. Currently, the company is working on building several GTL plants. A few of the plants will be fully operational in three years while some bigger projects such as one planned for Eastern Pennsylvania will be functioning in five years. That plant, which is to be built by Waste Management Processors, will be capable of producing 5,000 barrels per day of fuel.

Unfortunately, GTL technologies are not without their own set of obstacles. In order to convert coal into a fuel oil, the gasification process removes toxins, such as mercury, sulfur and heavy metals. However, since carbon dioxide (CO2), which is believed to contribute to global warming, is formed during combustion, the process is unable to help with reducing it. In addition, typical GTL plants lose around 40% of the coal energy in the conversion process. Yet one of the largest complications is the cost; it is expensive to turn coal into oil. One of the largest contributors to the expense is the price of a plant, which can be several billion dollars.

The GTL technology is not an end-all solution for the world’s energy problems, but it is another potentially viable tool to relieve the current strain and tension associated with foreign oil dependence, high prices, and emissions.

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