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How the US could Eliminate its Need for Crude Oil

How the US could Eliminate its Need for Crude Oil

The United States could eliminate its need for crude oil by using a combination of coal, natural gas, and non-food crops to make synthetic fuel, experts report.

Besides economic and national security benefits, the plan has potential environmental advantages. Because plants absorb carbon dioxide to grow, the US could cut vehicle greenhouse emissions by as much as 50 percent in the next several decades using non-food crops to create liquid fuels.

Synthetic fuels would be an easy fit for the transportation system because they could be used directly in automobile engines and are almost identical to fuels refined from crude oil. That sets them apart from currently available biofuels, such as ethanol, which have to be mixed with gas or require special engines.

In a series of scholarly articles over the past year, a team led by Christodoulos Floudas, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University, evaluated scenarios in which the US could power its vehicles with synthetic fuels rather than relying on oil. The team also analyzed the impact that synthetic fuel plants were likely to have on local areas and identified locations that would not overtax regional electric grids or water supplies.

“The goal is to produce sufficient fuel and also to cut CO2 emissions, or the equivalent, by 50 percent,” Floudas says. “The question was not only can it be done, but also can it be done in an economically attractive way. The answer is affirmative in both cases.”

Not easy or quick

Accomplishing this would not be easy or quick. A realistic approach would call for a gradual implementation of synthetic fuel technology. Floudas estimates it would take an estimated 30 to 40 years for the US to fully adopt synthetic fuel. It also would not be cheap. He estimates the price tag at roughly $1.1 trillion for the entire system.

The research makes up an important part of a white paper recently produced by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), in which chemical engineers call for a greater integration of energy sources and urge policymakers to consider chemical conversion processes as a potential method to produce cleaner and cheaper fuels.

“Right now we are going down so many energy paths,” says June Wispelwey, the institute’s director and a 1981 Princeton alumna. “There are ways for the system to be more integrated and much more efficient.”

Related Article: Why US Oil Consumption Might Drastically Decline in the Coming Years

The paper was written by Vern Weekman, one of Floudas’ co-researchers. Weekman, a lecturer at Princeton, is the former director of the Mobil Central Research Laboratories and a past president of AIChE.

The main reason the industry has not embraced synthetic fuels has been cost, Weekman says. Although the economics are “still on the edge,” rising prices for crude oil and improvements in the efficiency of synthetic fuel production have made the process far more viable than before.

“The main reason we wrote the paper was to get the planning agencies—the national academies, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Defense Department—thinking about this,” Weekman says. He adds that it is important that the agencies consider “this key link of using chemical processes to produce conventional fuels.”

Profitable synthetic fuels

Floudas’ team found that synthetic fuel plants could produce gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuels at competitive prices, depending on the price of crude oil and the type of feedstock used to create the synthetic fuel. About two-thirds of crude oil consumed by the United States is used for transportation fuel, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA), which says the United States imports about 45 percent of its annual crude oil consumption.

“Even including the capital costs, synthetic fuels can still be profitable,” says Richard Baliban, a chemical and biological engineering graduate student who graduated in 2012 and was the lead author on several of the team’s papers. “As long as crude oil is between $60 and $100 per barrel, these processes are competitive depending on the feedstock,” he said.

The core of the plan is a technique that uses heat and chemistry to create gasoline and other liquid fuels from high-carbon feedstock ranging from coal to switchgrass, a native North American grass common to the Great Plains. The method, called the Fischer-Tropsch process, was developed in Germany in the 1920s as a way to convert coal to liquid fuels.

The chemistry is complicated, but it basically takes the carbon and hydrogen from the feedstock and reassembles them into the complex chains that make up fuels like gasoline and diesel. Essentially, the feedstock material is heated to 1,000 to 1,300 degrees Celsius and converted to gas, and using the Fischer-Tropsch process, the gas is converted to chains of hydrocarbon molecules. These hydrocarbon chains are then processed over catalysts such as nickel or iron. The end products include fuels, waxes, and lubricants normally made from crude oil.

The Princeton team’s method adds a step to recycle CO2 through the process to reduce the amount of the gas vented by the plants. Baliban says there is a limit to how much CO2 can be economically recycled, although plants could also trap unused CO2 emissions for later storage.

Over the years, engineers have refined the original Fischer-Tropsch method to increase efficiency. But the high cost of building new synthetic fuel plants, coupled with the low price of crude oil, has made synthetic fuels too expensive for widespread acceptance.

Related Article: U.S. Energy Department Report Supports Shale Boom Credibility

As the price of oil has increased, however, synthetic fuels have become more practical. The US government has undertaken a number of projects to look into the process; in particular, the Defense Department has studied synthetic fuels as a way to supply transportation fuel without depending on overseas suppliers.

Coal, natural gas, biomass

In its work, the Princeton team looked at a broader picture. In a July article in the AIChE Journal, the team found that the United States could meet its entire demand for transportation fuel by building 130 synthetic fuel plants across the country. The article, with Josephine Elia, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering as the lead author, made its assessment using three feedstocks: coal, natural gas and biomass. To avoid switching farmland from food production to crops used for fuel production—which would hurt the food supply—the researchers only included non-edible crops such as perennial grasses, agricultural residue, and forest residue.


The plants modeled in their scenario were placed in proximity to both feedstock supplies and markets for fuels. The analysis factored in external costs such as water supplies and electricity to power the plants’ machinery.

Ultimately, the team recommended construction of nine small, 74 medium, and 47 large plants producing 1 percent, 28 percent and 71 percent of the fuel, respectively. Most of the plants would be clustered in the central part of the country and in the Southeast.

The state with the highest level of fuel production would be Kansas, which would have 11 large synthetic fuel plants. Texas would have the largest number of plants, but because of the scattered nature of feedstock in that state, most of those plants would be medium-sized.

The largest contributor to the price of synthetic fuel would be the cost of building the plants, followed by the purchase of biomass and then electricity. They estimated that the nationwide average cost of producing the synthetic equivalent of a barrel of crude oil would be $95.11, although the cost varies regionally. The cost in Kansas, where most production would occur, would average $83.58 for the equivalent of a barrel of crude oil.

The cost could be much lower if plants eliminated biomass and used only coal and natural gas to run the process, Floudas says, but that would eliminate most of the environmental benefit. “If you want to have a 50 percent reduction in emissions, you need to have the biomass,” he says.

In many ways, synthetic fuels are cleaner than petroleum fuels. The heavy metal and sulfur contaminants of petroleum fuels can be captured in the synthetic plants before the fuel is shipped out. Synthetic fuels also can be used in gasoline and diesel engines with no need for modifications, unlike many biofuels. The biofuel ethanol, for example, is commonly mixed with gasoline, but high levels of ethanol require modifications to car engines and pose special challenges for starting at low temperatures.

Synthetic fuels also would allow carbon reduction with the fleet of cars currently on the road. Even if the country immediately converted to zero-emitting electric or fuel cell vehicles, millions of internal combustion vehicles would still be driving. By switching to synthetic fuels, the country would have the opportunity to reduce those emissions, even if it they would not be completely eliminated.

“This is an opportunity to create a new economy,” Floudas says. “The amount of petroleum the US imports is very high. What is the price of that? What other resources to do we have? And what can we do about it?”

By. John Sullivan

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  • Brede on December 09 2012 said:
    Sooner or later the economics will favor substitution of other energy and fuels in place of crude oil.

    The author failed to mention how future nuclear technologies might play into the entire mix.
  • Jonathan Brooks on December 09 2012 said:
    If the synthetic fuel industry only needs hydrocarbons to modify, and wants to stay away from ethanol and food based fuel, then methane would be a good way to go.

    The U.S. pays vast money to process human and feed lot animal and chicken waste, and if this waste was processed by bacteria into methane, then the methane could be used as the unlimited hydrocarbon biomass to run the fuel plants.

    The biomass would not have to be paid for, beyond transport costs, and the waste products of methane production could be sent to fertilizer plants.

    The carbon impact would be minimal, since the biomass would be available near the synthetic fuel plants, and the technology to make methane is already in existence.
  • Mel Tisdale on December 10 2012 said:
    "Besides economic and national security benefits, the plan has potential environmental advantages."

    Nice to see the environment added as an afterthought.

    The IEA have just issued a report that says we are headed for a global average 4 C temperature rise by mid-century. That will mean about 5 C overland. In Europe in 2003 they had a heatwave that killed about 30,000 people. One 5 C hotter will be literally unbearable and result in many times more deaths, perhaps even orders of magnitude more.

    A 5 C increase overland will make many parts of the Middle East uninhabitable, so people are going to be forced to migrate. Much good will nuclear weapons be to either Iran or Israel when they have hoards moving across their lands towards cooler climes, if such lands aren't already overstretched in terms of food production and water supply, of course.

    This temperature rise is happening as I write and will continue rising past mid-century. That means conditions are just going to get progressively worse. Where it will stop will to some extent depend on how we behave today (CO2 stays in the atmosphere for over 100 years). If we pass a tipping point, such as where the current melting of the permafrost becomes unstoppable, then an average of only 4 C rise will seem like bliss.

    Mid-century is less than 40 years away and if we continue to combat climate change in the same limp-wristed way we currently have been (record atmospheric CO2 levels despite the economic downturn), then that forcast is guaranteed to be too low.

    My son is 35 and assuming he lives his supposedly allotted 'three score years and ten,' then he will have an exceedingly unpleasant old age. As too will a great many of the deniers that so readily leap in with their unscientific opinions. The amusing thing is that even the fossil fuel industry execs will not be able to save their families. That they must know this, gives us their measure.

    The U.K. even has an MP, one Peter Lilley, who argues that we should make as much money as we cab now so that later generations can spend it on adapting to the increased temperatures! If you don't know just how stupid such a remark is, you don't understand how devastating the world will be if the IEA forecast is anything like near the mark. And anyway what good will that money be in a world where society has broken down?

    We need Old Mother Nature. She doesn't need us.
  • JB on December 10 2012 said:
    No free lunch: no mention of inputs of energy and water (both increasingly scare commodities) to produce the BTU's? Everything I have read have made synfuels -- coal or biomass, even algae--a non-starter.. also, if and when we get into full life cycle analysis of technologies--if and when we agree anthropogenic/ carbon climate effects are real--or that we have a very real problem with safe management of nuclear waste...coal, nuke, fall to the wayside as well. Its a pickle The problem , dear Brutsu, is not in the stars, but in ourselves... maybe we need a paradigm shift in priorities, choices, lifestyle, 'need versus greed', etc?
  • Lance Bonczkiewicz on December 10 2012 said:
    why not use water HHO gas and Free energy as described by the Keshe Foundation???
    We have already joined the Space program with the Keshe foundation with NASA. This was a thing that Obama did.
    Now we have to allow the people to take on their right and take this free universal energy and spread it across the world. The time for making profits is over and your old world is now over with and completed its use.
    Please go back to universal laws and principles of LOVE and PEACE.

    Thank you

  • thump on December 10 2012 said:
    Is this study based on actual industrial-scale processes to produce fuels, say from switchgrass, or is it at the level of, "Well, it should be possible to scale up this lab process to make this much output with this much input?"
  • Adam Eran on December 10 2012 said:
    See Amory Lovins TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/amory_lovins_on_winning_the_oil_endgame.html

    ...for a more convincing case. The word "conservation" doesn't appear in the article, yet it's competitive with conventional energy *now*... Bizarre.
  • binky bear on December 10 2012 said:
    Changing World Technologies has already pioneered this process using a variety of feedstocks and had some amazing results. Some problems as well. But imagine the value of being able to take toxic and hazardous materials otherwise rotting in landfills and converting them into hydrocarbons and industrial products like carbon black. Plastics, waste oil and solvents, turkey heads, pig excrement-these are waste problems that could be recycled.
  • Brek on December 12 2012 said:
    Let's get started. When I take a trip to the dump half or more of what's in the pile must be bio mass. Given the cost of burying it one would think it is time to process it into a useable product.
    When Obama passed his health care bill he failed to also pass a health care tax to pay for it and to discourage unhealthful activities. The burning of fuels pollutes and puts a burden on the health care system. My opinion is there should be a tax proportionate to the damage such pollution does. Polluters get a free ride and why should they? Make coal fired electricity pay for its health effects and renewables will magically become a cheaper way to generate.

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