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James Burgess

James Burgess

James Burgess studied Business Management at the University of Nottingham. He has worked in property development, chartered surveying, marketing, law, and accounts. He has also…

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A New Liquid Fuel Alternative to Gasoline Developed from Coal

We all know that oil reserves are running low, gasoline prices are increasing and eventually it will become too uneconomical for many people to run their vehicles. Several solutions are being researched from electric cars to hydrogen fuel cells. One of the solutions currently pursued is that of synthetic fuels, created to be a direct replacement for gasoline. A popular method for producing these fuels is via a process called coal-to-liquid (CTL), conventionally this blends pure oxygen, steam, and coal at high temperatures and pressures, generating carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas that can be catalytically combined to synthesize liquid hydrocarbon fuels. However this process generates CO2 during the combustion of the coal and the pure oxygen, and also in some reactions between the water and carbon atoms.

Back in 2008 the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded SRI International, a private research laboratory based in Menlo Park, California, $1,612,905 to pursue an innovative concept of using the methane from natural gas as a hydrogen source, rather than water, in an attempt to discover a cheap, carbon-free CTL process for producing jet fuel.

SRI’s research has led them to a procedure in which methane preheated to 600 °C displaces much of the water required, thus reducing the unwanted reaction with the coal. The methane also reduces the amount of heat absorbed by the gasification process, eliminating the need for oxygen fuelled combustion to maintain the 1,400 to 1,500 °C temperatures the process normally requires. The redundancy of the combustion means that the process can receive all the energy it needs from alternative sources such as renewable or nuclear power. The lack of oxygen required also vastly reduces the costs due to the fact that the facility no longer requires an oxygen processing plant.

SRI claims its process addresses three liabilities that have slowed the commercialization of the technology. The use of the methane means that the carbon footprint of the CTL process has been eliminated, water consumption has been reduced by over 70 percent, and the capital cost has more than halved. Effectively they have made it cheaper and cleaner.

Chan Park, a gasification and synthetic fuels expert at the University of California, Riverside's Center for Environmental Research & Technology believes that it "could be really exciting" as an alternative to petroleum fuel in coal and gas-rich countries such as the U.S., although the development is still in relatively early stages and needs to be reproduced on a much larger scale before it can become truly “exciting”. However Park holds some doubts in reserve. He is currently researching an oxygen-free gasification scheme of his own for converting waste into energy at the Riverside-based spinoff Viresco Energy, and suggests that electrical heating will not work on a large scale.

Even so, SRI remain confident and claim that their zero-carbon process will generate jet fuel for $2.82 per gallon, which is under DARPA's $3 target, and in plants that cost just $3.2 billion, unfortunately over DARPA's $1.5 billion target, but far less than the current $6 billion cost of conventional CTL plants.

So really there are still a few hurdles ahead of this new alternative to gasoline. Will the process successfully scale up to production levels capable of 100,000 barrels per day, and will DARPA ignore the fact that the plants are currently coming in at well over their initial target budget? There is also another factor to consider that I have not yet mentioned. Sure the process claims to be 100% carbon free, but it is all based towards producing a carbon based fuel to replace gasoline. Which, when burned in engines will still produce CO2 emissions, and therefore doesn’t really help combat climate change. Eric Larson, a research engineer with Princeton University's Energy Systems Analysis Group, says that “On a life-cycle basis, the fuel is no better than petroleum fuel on greenhouse-gas emissions.” So perhaps it should not be described as “a clean CTL fuel”, but rather “a bit cleaner than original CTL fuels, but still just as dirty as gasoline”.

By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • james donegan on January 09 2012 said:
    Whatever happened to the andrea rossi invention that creates cold fusion? If valid this would change "energy" forever
  • Fred Banks on January 10 2012 said:
    I can tell you what happened to it James. The people who rushed around telling other people to buy in sobered up, or turned their attention to adult entertainment. To use your expression, energy can be changed forever with the right people in the White House and the USDOE, as compared to wasting time trying to overturn conventional physics.
  • Lumeter on January 11 2012 said:
    Interesting article. Are there any plans to introduce fuel dispenser equipment for this, or is this really just an 'idea'?
  • ANON on March 08 2013 said:
    Why not use coal to hydrogen and natural gas to hydrogen using Large Novel Fuel Cells then convert the Hydrogen to Liquid NanoBeaded Fuel for use in Conventional Gasoline Engines then America could attach our fuel problems using both Coal & Natural Gas. One should never put all their eggs into one basket.
    Novel Fuel Cells convert coal to hydrogen
    http://www.gizmag.com/breakthrough-promises-150-per-gallon-synthetic-gasoline-with-no-carbon-emissions/17687/ Hydrogen to gasoline nanobeads for use in conventional gas engines
  • ANON on September 07 2013 said:
    ELECTRIC VEHICLES (EVs) are great but most places don't have fast chargers nor any plug in chargers such as those which could be provided in conjunction with parking meters for an additional price. And EVs usually require an hybrid option to include fuels so why not push the "Biomass Thermal Utilization Act (BTU ACT)" to include subsidized parking meter electrical chargers and large tax credits ($1.00 per gallon) for gas stations to provide chargers and sell Butanol Gas Blends (24%)(made from coal), Hydrogen Gas (made from coal), Bio Deisel (made from coal via chemical looping), CNG (Propane & Natural Gas) and installation of related kits for both Cars and Trucks. And tax credits for individuals whom get engine conversions to burn Bio Diesels and other alternate energy fuels. Likewise, and local state EPA supported coal to liquids or gas conversion plants should be Federally EPA approved automatically. And the largest Ethanol Plants (production over 20 million gallons per year) should be given Federal Funding to convert to Butanol Production (Cost is $15 Million each). This is needed to make the United States energy self sufficient and to give every American some relief from high Fuel & Energy costs and costs associated with transportation of goods via truck. I hope this doesn't stray too far from the your subject, any new type of fueled vehicles will not go over very well without a Federally inspired change in our infrastructure to allow these alternatives and there should not be a big fight over IT - LETS JUST DO IT.... thanks
  • ANON on November 01 2013 said:
    Other alternatives are:
    1) Supercapacitors for use in EVs as batteries http://www.earthtechling.com/2013/02/graphene-supercapacitor-battery-thats-not-a-battery/
    Graphene Supercapacitors: The End Of Batteries

    2) HERE'S A BETTER BMW..... Article about BMW Hydrogen 7 Hybrid runs off both gasoline and hydrogen
    and start hydrogen sales via pumping into natural gas pipelines and mixing with propane

    Good Explanation of Biobutanol use as Biodiesel gasoline – can be blended with Diesel above 10-25% and burned in conventional engines without any problems and be piped without rust problems since it doesn’t retain water (bio-butanol is hydrophobic)

    65% of the DME produced globally is blended with LPG for cooking????
    One way to build a market for DME would be to blend it directly into propane at a mixture of up to 20 percent, which would work in gas grills or propane-fueled vehicles, Larson said.
    Read more: http://finance-commerce.com/2012/10/university-of-minnesota-developing-home-grown-diesel-alternative/#ixzz2goHbs0Qv
    Methanol is converted to DME for diesel truck fuel
    DME can be produced by small-scale production units that convert biogas and natural gas into the fuel. Oberon Fuels recently announced their first innovative production unit will go online this month in California’s Imperial Valley region.
    While typically refined from fossil fuels, DME also can be produced by the gasification of a thick, dark liquid known as black liquor, a byproduct of the paper-making process. Over the course of a year, a small black-liquor gasifier at one of Minnesota’s paper mills could produce 7 million gallons of DME, enough to fuel about two-thirds of Metro Transit’s bus fleet, according to a grant proposal filed by Kittelson.
    If every pulp mill in Minnesota were producing DME, Kittelson’s proposal said, the output would meet 10 to 15 percent of the state’s diesel fuel requirements during a year. That share would rise, of course, if DME also were to be produced from Minnesota’s substantial cellulosic biomass resources such as prairie grass, forestry waste and corn stalks.

    and sell DME, Butanol, Hydrogen, Supercapacitors Change out like Propane Tanks
    map of locations to buy alternate fuels

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