Skip to comments.Liquid coal: A cheaper, cleaner 21st century fuel?
Posted on 12/18/2006 9:10:18 AM PST by Red Badger
EW YORK (Reuters) - When railroads ruled, it was the sweating firemen shoveling coal into the furnace who kept the engines running.
Now, nearly two centuries after Stephenson's "Rocket" steam locomotive helped usher in the Industrial Revolution, that same coal could be the fuel that keeps the jet age aloft.
But with a twist: The planes of the future could be flown with liquid fuel made from coal or natural gas.
Already the United States Air Force has carried out tests flying a B-52 Stratofortress with a coal-based fuel.
And JetBlue Airways Corp. (Nasdaq:JBLU - news) supports a bill in Congress that would extend tax credits for alternative fuels, pushing technology to produce jet fuel for the equivalent of $40 a barrel -- way below current oil prices.
Major coal mining companies in the United States, which has more coal reserves than Saudi Arabia has oil, are investing in ways to develop fuels derived from carbon.
The technology of producing a liquid fuel from coal or natural gas is hardly new. The Fischer-Tropsch process was developed by German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in 1923 and used by Germany and Japan during World War II to produce alternative fuels. Indeed, in 1944, Germany produced 6.5 million tons, or 124,000 barrels a day.
And coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuel is already in use elsewhere, like South Africa, where it meets 30 percent of transportation fuel needs.
In addition to being cheaper than oil, advocates point out that the fuel is environmentally friendlier and would also help America wean itself of foreign oil imports.
"America must reduce its dependence on foreign oil via environmentally sound and proven coal-to-liquid technologies," said JetBlue's founder and chief executive, David Neeleman. "Utilizing our domestic coal reserves is the right way to achieve energy independence."
In a recent briefing to power and energy executives, Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said bio-diesel fuels offer little in the way of reduced carbon dioxide emissions, have enormous production costs and present "serious transmission and infrastructure" problems.
In contrast, CTL transportation fuels are substantially cleaner-burning than conventional fuels.
Popovich warned that the United States risks falling behind economic competitors such as China, which plans to spend $25 billion on CTL plants.
America is "already behind the curve" when it comes to tapping the vast liquid fuel potential that coal offers, said John Ward, of natural resources company Headwaters Inc. (NYSE:HW - news), which builds CTL plants.
He said plants in America would likely each produce 40,000 barrels of CTL fuel per day, with a typical plant using 8.5 million tons of coal per year. In contrast, China is focused on building plants capable of producing 60,000 barrels of CTL fuel per day, he said.
"There is significant investor interest in what could be a major growth opportunity," said Paul Clegg, an alternative energy analyst with Natexis Bleichroeder.
"It is a viable technology, but the question is where do hydrocarbon prices go now? Will we continue to see oil above $40 a barrel forever?"
In October, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and a consortium of energy and technology companies announced the state will be home to one of America's first CTL energy plants.
The $1 billion Bull Mountain plant is slated to produce 22,000 barrels per day of diesel fuel and 300 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power 240,000 homes -- in six years.
Schweitzer and the companies behind the plant, including Arch Coal (NYSE:ACI - news) and DKRW Advanced Fuels LLC, say the production of fuel and electricity will not release the greenhouse gases associated with coal-generated electricity.
Arch has a 25-percent stake in DKRW and the companies are also developing a CTL plant in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.
At a recent coal industry conference, the heads of two of America's Big Four producers talked up CTL development.
Arch Coal Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steven Leer said it "could be a game-changer." Chemical companies and railroads were asking him about using coal-based liquid fuels.
"It's a whole new group of potential customers," he said.
Peabody Energy (NYSE:BTU - news) Chief Executive Gregory Boyce said of CTL: "Stay tuned, as the sector continues to evolve.
"I have heard reports that China can produce oil for $25 per barrel from coal. We see it more in the $45 range here."
Peabody recently announced an agreement with Rentech (AMEX:RTK - news) to evaluate sites in the Midwest and Montana for CTL projects. The plants could range in size from producing 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of fuel per day and use approximately 3 million to 9 million tons of coal annually.
Another alternative fuel company, Syntroleum (Nasdaq:SYNM - news), said recently that its ultra-clean jet fuel was successfully tested in a USAF B-52 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The bomber flew with a 50/50 blend of CTL and traditional JP-8 jet fuel.
"The program ... is the first step in opening up new horizons for sourcing fuel for military purposes," said Bill Harrison, a fuels expert with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
The flight test was part of the Department of Defense's Assured Fuel Initiative to develop secure domestic sources for the military's energy needs. The Pentagon hopes to reduce its use of crude oil and foreign producers and get about half of its aviation fuel from alternative sources by 2016.
Rest In Peace, old friend, your work is finished.......
If you want on or off the DIESEL "KNOCK" LIST just FReepmail me........
This is a fairly HIGH VOLUME ping list on some days......
Slowly but surely. Coal makes sense because we have more of it than any other resource. If we can use it in responsible ways then why not? I know the environment purists (nazis) don't like anything with hydrocarbons in it but until we have something better this is one way we can lessen our dependence on international oil.
So mining for coal is more environemtally friendly that oil drilling of the coast of FL, or drilling in ANWR? I'm sure the enviro-wackos are going to support more coal mining!
We can always fill the hole in with water and make wetlands.......
With rhat line of thought, we shouldn't use cotten because it was picked by slaves..........
Yep, saw that
I'd have looked at her and said "what kind of a dumb ass question is that?"
Sounds like turkey bacon, or meatless burgers, or Fat-Free oil...or sugar-free hard candy.
Yeah, but she probably farts through silk so she would think that was a very progressive idea you had...
Unlike those modern terms, this technology has been around for nearly a century........
Nuclear power is the most common sense energy right now for heating homes and buildings. For transportation, just drill for more oil domestically. How hard is this?
If we had PBR's in our backyards, we wouldn't be having this conversation.......
Because those who currently hold the reins of the oil drilling, delivery and refining infrastructure do not yet hold the patents for the processes to refine liquid fuel from coal.
Until they do...and when oil is no longer available to be pumped from underground...we will not see cheap, clean fuels from coal.
Not too cynical am I?
--amen, bro--and nukes would even give the hydrogen dreamers electricity to make their dream come true (at some future date)--
Are their coal deposits left that the greens and Democrats haven't made off limits?
Yes, there are many. And they want those shut down.....
Let me direct you to the "Prime Farmlands" provisions of the Federal surface mining law (signed by Jimmah Cahtah.) Also see "Alluvial Valley Floors" provisions. The answer is yes.
I'm all in favor a the "full-bore fission economy", but let's be real, here. Nuclear power was MASSIVELY "sustained by taxpayer subsidies" for a LONG time.
I think that doing the equivalent for a cheap, efficient, thin-film solar cell is a "good thing".
Physically, not too hard. But the government red tape and environmentalist rules make it almost impossible especially in undisturbed areas. They would rather blame the oil companies for high prices than solve the problem (except yelling "conservation").
whew..thanx dor the xplanation...
Now what do I do with these three truck loads of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer ?
Everything is cheaper when produced with slave labor, and without environmental regs!
Turn them into diesel fuel...........you wouldn't have much trouble...........
I've got a few in my fridge. Think I'll crack one open.
Careful you don't spill any of the Polonium 210 on you........
Watch for the envirowhackos to sue, sue, sue, because it uses icky, dirty coal...
yeah, why did some idiot invent the internal combustion engine when we had steam engines? And don't get me started on those atuomobiles! What was wrong with plain old horse power....! [sarc]
you are definitely too cynical: Shell is one of the largest alternative energy providers and has plenty of proprietory technology in this area.
With rhat line of thought, we shouldn't use cotten because it was picked by slaves..........
Or, as Eli Whitney said, "Keep your cotton picking hands off my gin!".
Actually, the labour costs are only really involved in the construction of the plant, which is relatively low in labour costs because most of it is automated, so CTL costs about the same anywhere, unless your coal is particularly high in sulphur content (and therefore more expensive to process).
The other factors that will effect the production cost is having to ship the coal to a plant somewhere else for processing, whereas the Chinese are building their CTL plants virtually on top of the feedstock (ie, the mines), and it is cheaper to ship the liquified fuel than the huge amounts of coal needed for processing.
Since most coal in the US is mined in areas far from existing refining capacity, you will need to persuade any investor in a CTL refinery that you can deliver the fuel products to market without added huge infrastructure costs (line additional rail lines, roads, etc) when the existing pipeline network isn't counted as a cost against mineral oil sources.
The other factor is the price of coal - which is being used more and more for power generation (see ExtremeExtremist's arguement in favour of nuclear technology as a power source), it hikes the price, which impacts the cost of CTL fuels.
I'm not believing this until Volvo makes a car that runs on this stuff....
Damn straight. I'll have my Congresscritter Dan Lungren introduce a bill to outlaw phase conversion and energy conversion and leave things the way they are.
Rubber - ought be liquid like it comes right out of the tree ... hey - no more tires or at least a much smoother ride!
Bourbon - leave it like a gas the way it come (not comes, mind you!!) out of the still ... hey no more Saturday nites!
Let's get a new engine that burns fuel like a man would - liquid! None of them sissy intermediate stages like gasification an' mixing with air an' stuff.
Do it the ol' way so we can say: "that blowed up real good!!"
Sorry coloradan to go on this way but I'm assumin' you're on this parody trail - as we know - a trail with no end ...
Mobil Oil is the largest owner of solar panel technologies. If you want to build a solar panel, you will have to buy components from companies owned by Mobil or from companies who pay Mobil licensing fees to sell it...since Mobil bought up all the patents and such many years ago. They now sit on this and other technologies until such time as it economically benefits them to do otherwise.
This is more the type of thing I was alluding to.
The market for oil being what it is, it makes good business sense for companies to do this but given the current state of energy supplies and consuption it still seems a bit crass for them to do so.
Even if this were true, remember that a patent is valid for only 17 years.
Currently in my Seattle suburb, gas is $.25 more expensive now than on election day.
Nuclear power is not a feasible solution for the transportation sectors energy needs. If you do not believe me, try driving an electric car or that matter an electric truck, or better yet an electric plane.
Alternate fuels really mean alternative fuels for an internal combustion engine or like application.
Ah! I see your point. Trouble is, who is going to pay Exxon Mobil an extra 2 cents on the gallon to subsidise solar (which is barely profitable with tax rebates and subsidies)?
I think that is definitely part of the problem. Solar never took off as expected.
Or was this foreseen as a possibility and Mobil knew they could afford to usurp it and sit on it until it became profitable by the death of oil? Again...just me being cynical.
well, part of the problem is that with energy costs actually historically low, there is no incentive for people to use them. That doesn't help any corporation in a position to sell them, since there is not a visible, ready or expanding market to sell them to and it would be hard to persuade investors to back the company if it was seen to be selling unwanted products.
That said, innovative companies can create a market ahead of consumers, as demonstrated by Toyota. The Big 3 decried Toyota's efforts with hybrids, but Ford has to license their technology to jump on the band wagon as Toyota take their money to fund further developments.
I love the idea of using a geo-thermal system at home, to help heat & cool my house, but according to this article (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16191419/) I would be expending about $30,000 (and that's just set-up costs) on a system that might save me about $1500-1800 a year (assuming oil & gas prices rise during the same period).
It just isn't viable, unless I install it in a house I am going to live in for 15 years.
Without the incentive of saving money (not exactly everyone's favourite game), solar and other technologies look like nice but VERY expensive ideas.