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Clean Diesel from Coal
Technology Review ^ | April 19, 2006 | By Kevin Bullis

Posted on 04/19/2006 5:56:25 AM PDT by aculeus

As the cost of oil soars and worries over the U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum escalate, coal is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative as a feedstock to make a range of fuels. Now chemists have invented a new catalytic process that could increase the yield of a clean form of diesel made from coal.

The method, described in the current issue of the journal Science, uses a pair of catalysts to improve the yield of diesel fuel from Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) synthesis, a nearly century-old chemical technique for reacting carbon monoxide and hydrogen to make hydrocarbons. The mixture of gases is produced by heating coal. Although Germany used the process during World War II to convert coal to fuel for its military vehicles, F-T synthesis has generally been too expensive to compete with oil.

Part of the problem with the F-T process is that it produces a mixture of hydrocarbons -- many of which are not useful as fuel. But in the recent research, Alan Goldman, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, and Maurice Brookhart, professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, use catalysts to convert these undesirable hydrocarbons into diesel. The catalysts work by rearranging the carbon atoms, transforming six-carbon atom hydrocarbons, for example, into two- and ten-carbon atom hydrocarbons. The ten-carbon version can power diesel engines. The first catalyst removes hydrogen atoms, which allows the second catalyst to rearrange the carbon atoms. Then the first catalyst restores the hydrogen, to form fuel.

Diesel fuel produced in this way has several potential advantages. Ordinary diesel contains molecules, called aromatics, that, when combusted, produce particulates, Goldman says. But the diesel formed by the new catalysts does not include aromatics, so it burns much cleaner, overcoming one of the major objections to diesel fuel. This could lead to more vehicles using diesel engines, which are about 30 percent more efficient than gasoline engines.

But the biggest advantage may be that the United States has huge amounts of coal: "We have as much energy in coal as the rest of the world has in oil. That's enough to last us the next hundred years or so," Goldman says. Thus, a more efficient, and so less expensive method of converting coal to diesel could significantly cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and do so for a long time.

"When I saw this I thought it was really a terrific contribution that could be very important," says Richard Schrock, professor of chemistry at MIT, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005, with two other scientists, for discovering the type of catalyst used in the second step. Combining two catalysts this way "is pretty rare," he says. "You can't just throw any two things together and expect to get the results you anticipated."

According to Robert Grubbs, professor of chemistry at Caltech, who shared the Nobel prize with Schrock, "The key is finding catalyst systems that are compatible, and will operate at the temperatures where you can do both processes together."

At this time, the new catalytic method is still a proof-of-concept, and not ready for commercial use. For example, the second catalyst tends to break down. But Schrock says this problem should be solvable: "It's theoretically possible that this could become practical. I e-mailed Alan Goldman and said, 'Look, we've got a lot of catalysts, and I can think of some things that might be thermally more stable.' So I'm going to send him some catalysts, and he's going to try them out."

It also might be possible to make catalysts that use products from the first reaction to regenerate themselves. "Then the catalyst wouldn't die, and you could in fact keep the reaction going," says Schrock.


TOPICS: Extended News
KEYWORDS: coal; diesel; energy; oil
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To: Rodney King
Actually, this doesn't happen because the company doesn't enter into the futures contract with someone with questionable ability to deliver in the first place.

Agree with everything you said, except the last, which is that they might. It just wouldn't be prudent to contract a large percentage with them (hedging the hedge). So the company sells a large number of small contracts, vice a low number or large ones. Once the technology is proven though, the risk of nondeliver drops substantially.

But if an established, well capitalized business, were to do it, that makes it all the more enticing.

51 posted on 04/19/2006 12:00:00 PM PDT by SampleMan
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To: Roccus

The only real effect day traders have on the market is to add liquidity, which is a good thing.


52 posted on 04/19/2006 12:08:44 PM PDT by Mr. Lucky
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To: aculeus

The Fischer-Tropsch process has been used for decades. South Africa's SASOL.


53 posted on 04/19/2006 12:35:19 PM PDT by Fred Hayek (Liberalism is a mental disorder)
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To: SampleMan
I wonder if wind power would be cheaper than fossil fuels if it weren't so heavily subsidized. I'd say it definitely wouldn't be, but there are effective subsidies for the price of fossil fuels as well - for example, not taking advantage of the ANWR oil, and the artificial (and in my mind, criminal) restriction on the use of nuclear power.

Technologically, wind power is not economic except in some very special cases (locations with lots of steady wind), but in our far-from-rational energy system, who knows where the right answer will lie? If all the controls except true pollution restrictions (not including 'preserving wildlife eco-systems,' as though the caribou hadn't benefited from the Alaskan pipeline) were lifted, I think we'd find two things. First, there is plenty of energy, and second, most of the so-called environmentally friendly (and/or renewable) energy sources would turn out to be very bad polluters and so would fall by the wayside when people are making scientific decisions instead of sniffing the political winds. (Making batteries, for example on 'hybrid' cars, is an environmental nightmare, followed by the impact of making all those distributed motors on wind generators, etc.)
54 posted on 04/19/2006 1:26:36 PM PDT by Gorjus
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To: SampleMan

that could easily be solved by government placing a floor on the price of oil - it cannot go below $45 let's say - else its taxed to that level. this will prevent new entrants into the energy market from being wiped out by a manipulated dive in oil prices, to wipe out the startup's investments, just as they come to fruition.


55 posted on 04/19/2006 1:34:42 PM PDT by oceanview
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To: oceanview

Ping!

A price floor would be the fastest way to ensure alternative methods of oil production.

But some here at the Free Republic would call that fascism.

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1617057/posts?page=414#414


56 posted on 04/19/2006 5:07:02 PM PDT by gogogodzilla (Raaargh! Raaargh! Crush, Stomp!)
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To: oceanview

Concur. The only problem is getting the Fed. Gov. to do a direct assignment of the revenue. I would pick refunds.


57 posted on 04/19/2006 5:07:34 PM PDT by SampleMan
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To: Gorjus
I wonder if wind power would be cheaper than fossil fuels if it weren't so heavily subsidized

The answer is yes, when oil is at $70 a barrel, no when it is at $20 a barrel. Right now it is very profitable without subsidies of any kind. The break even point on wind power is about $50 a barrel. That would likely decrease as the market grows.

58 posted on 04/19/2006 5:10:23 PM PDT by SampleMan
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To: Gorjus
Technologically, wind power is not economic except in some very special cases

There is nothing more constant than the sea breeze. In during the day, out at night. What proportion of the population lives withing 100 miles of a coast? In the U.S. I think it is around 80%.

59 posted on 04/19/2006 5:12:52 PM PDT by SampleMan
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To: oceanview

there is nothing evil or unlawful in meeting competition for customers..if coal/oil or ethanol/gas must depend on oil prices at historic high levels..they will be undercut every time, consumers will choose to save 10 or 20 or even 75 cents a gallon when given the chance so your pie in the sky alternative energy plans must support high oil prices..which limit growth..until alt energy can compete with oil at or near break-even for oil production/refining it will never get off the ground without Gov mandated high oil prices kinda what we are seeing right now..only the fools for alt energy complain when they must pay the high prices for gas, when what they WANT- demands these high prices be set without competition from cheaper oil ..well a fool and his money


60 posted on 04/21/2006 4:30:21 AM PDT by ConsentofGoverned (if a sucker is born every minute, what are the voters?)
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To: SampleMan
The break even point on wind power is about $50 a barrel.

I'm not discounting your statement out of hand, but what's your data source on that? Except in areas of strong, steady wind (as I mentioned in my first posting), wind power generators often consume more electricity to power their magnets than they produce - and even when the winds are right the net production is very small. They also have some pretty significant maintenance/depreciation requirements that are factored into conventional power plants but often ignored when considering only net cost per watt produced/consumed.

I'd appreciate knowing your data source so I could see what's changed since the last time I looked into it in any depth. But when I did, it was ONLY the subsidies that made wind power viable at any price.
61 posted on 04/21/2006 6:50:52 AM PDT by Gorjus
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To: SampleMan
There is nothing more constant than the sea breeze.

That's a start, and I'm not saying wind power has no potential. I'd like to see an honest set of numbers, including maintenance and depreciation. If the numbers are there - without subsidy - then fine. And the best way to see if that's true is - as my first post on this thread suggested - get rid of all the artificial constraints including things like not exploiting ANWR and let the marketplace demonstrate the right answer.

In addition, I've always favored government-sponsored research even though I don't support government subsidies of production facilities. Even if wind power is not competitive today, that doesn't mean it will never be competitive, and I think there is a compelling social interest in finding out.
62 posted on 04/21/2006 6:55:47 AM PDT by Gorjus
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To: ConsentofGoverned
having sat behind a diesel bus, there is nothing clean about diesel

Hello? We're currently using high sulfur diesel fuel, not the clean diesel that can be obtained from coal or crude. That's changing this year, and by October we will be using ultra low sulfur diesel nationwide (<15 ppm sulfur).

This will allow for particulate traps and catalytic converters on diesels.

Besides that, the nastiest pollutants are the ones you can't smell.

63 posted on 04/21/2006 7:03:58 AM PDT by B Knotts
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To: Salo

Perhaps we need a diesel ping list. Heck, there's a ping list for everything else, no matter how obscure. :-)


64 posted on 04/21/2006 7:05:02 AM PDT by B Knotts
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To: B Knotts

Might be a good idea - dhuffman and I both own VW TDIs, so I am aware of his interest in the subject.

I wish there were more diesels available in the US. Damned hippies ruing everything. :-)


65 posted on 04/21/2006 8:41:37 AM PDT by Salo
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To: ConsentofGoverned

> having sat behind a diesel bus, there is nothing clean about diesel

Well, the diesel fuels and motors used in typical trucks and buses are generally pretty nasty, especially when operating at non-optimal RPM, i.e. accellerating.

However, a diesel engine burning dimethyl ether - which can be synthesized from coal - at optimal RPM - such as in a properly designed hybrid, produces much less pollution than almost any gasoline engine.


66 posted on 04/21/2006 8:42:48 AM PDT by Mr170IQ
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To: Salo

They're coming. At least from Daimler-Chrysler. I think others will jump on board in the next few years. As you know, ULSD was the hold-up, and we're getting it this year.


67 posted on 04/21/2006 9:31:54 AM PDT by B Knotts
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To: Gorjus
I'm no eco nut putting up wind power because its fashionable. I agree with you on market dynamics being the key. Even subsidies (if done for solid reasons) should be done to use market dynamics. Like setting a market floor on oil, below which it is taxed. Thus all alternatives are on equal footing. I'm pretty busy now, but if I have time I'll try to find the numbers for you.

The key to alternatives has always been making them market ably wise. The instability of the oil market has always been a problem in setting a business model.
68 posted on 04/21/2006 9:39:49 AM PDT by SampleMan
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To: B Knotts

D-C can't build worth a damn, either, unfortunately.

If Ford, GM (ok, maybe not GM), Toyota or Honda could put diesels in smaller vehicles, I would buy from them and not VW, which has serious kwality control issues (yeah, VW put the "kw" in "quality").


69 posted on 04/21/2006 11:33:27 AM PDT by Salo
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To: SampleMan
The instability of the oil market has always been a problem in setting a business model.

I'm not sure about things like setting a market floor on oil, with a tax penalty (which is in effect a negative subsidy) or any other type of subsidy. I guess I'm not sure there is a 'solid reason' for a subsidy, barring only maintaining an essential industrial capability which is not normally needed. I think - if the government got out of the game - that the oil market would be a lot more stable unless there were some special case like a Katrina that interfered with normal oil production. And in that case, prices are going to go up so a floor is not relevant.
70 posted on 04/21/2006 12:33:56 PM PDT by Gorjus
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To: Gorjus

OPEC. If it didn't exist, you would have a free market in oil, but OPEC is a solid reason for consuming countries to either act collectively (think how well it works with the UN) or to take unilateral action to protect their own industries for a foreign monopoly.

I would support the tax penalty concept on the grounds that it provides long term stability for alternative fuels, when OPEC decides to wipe out Western investments in alternative fuels (and what good is a monopoly if you don't attack the competition).

It would not raise energy costs on the consumer, unless oil were to drop substantially. Nor would it hurt domestic oil production.

All you are doing is protecting your domestic market from a large and active foreign monopoly.


71 posted on 04/21/2006 1:12:31 PM PDT by SampleMan
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To: Salo

I don't know about that. The new OM642 engine looks pretty good, and I've read that it may show up in some Chrysler vehicles.


72 posted on 04/21/2006 1:36:01 PM PDT by B Knotts
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