Texas University Finds New Coal To Gas Process
Coal Bin by Harold Hough
America has more than one trillion barrels of potential gasoline in its coal reserves (and that doesn’t even include the one trillion barrels in oil shale in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado). Unfortunately, oil costs and large capital investments have kept current Fisher-Tropsch process from being economical. There have also been concerns about pollution. That may change, however, with a new discovery from the University of Texas.
Researchers at the University of Texas (UT) announced that they have developed a clean way to turn the cheapest kind of coal - lignite, common in Texas - into synthetic crude. "We go from that [lignite coal] to this really nice liquid," Brian Dennis, a member of the research team, said in describing the synthetic crude that can be refined into gasoline.
By using a cheaper coal, the final cost goes down dramatically. Texas lignite coal sells for $18 a ton. The coal conversion technology uses one ton of coal to produce 1.5 barrels of crude oil. One barrel of crude produces 42 U.S. gallons of gasoline. In other words, $18 worth of coal yields 63 gallons of gasoline: 0.28 cents a gallon.
U.S. government has approved construction of a small-scale microrefinery to test the UT lab-based breakthrough. The money came from the government and licensing agreements with an oil company. This prototype microrefinery should be in operation by year-end.
Very little is knows about the process at this point. The technology uses "micro-fluidic reactors" that convert coal to synthetic crude at a fraction of the cost incurred with traditional conversion methods - and in a fraction of the time. The process first converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, then adds hydrogen from a renewable resource - such as from the water trapped inside lignite coal. Although this manufactured crude can be processed into gasoline by conventional refineries, it can apparently be processed more efficiently in "microrefineries" that cost one-fifth as much to build as conventional refineries.
Microfluidic technology deals with the control and manipulation of fluids on a sub-millimeter scale. It’s a cousin of inkjet technology. A diesel-refining process developed and patented by UT researchers using this style of technology is used commercially. It essentially reduces the time needed to refine diesel fuel from 90 minutes to four minutes. UT researchers will be using some of that same technology with the coal conversion process.
A microfluidic coal conversion refinery could be built for about $50 million that would produce as much crude oil as a billion-dollar factory built on Fisher-Tropsch techniques. Indeed, the critical issue now seems to center not so much on the technology as on refinements of assorted catalysts.
An added advantage is that the process uses the carbon dioxide that environmentalists don’t want released into the atmosphere. However, that hasn’t stopped environmentalists from opposing these types of projects. Some environmentalists are now saying that we have overestimated coal reserves and only have about 25 years of reserves. They also say that America’s railroad network can’t handle the additional transportation of coal.
The Texas researchers, who worked on the project for about 18 months, expect the cost to drop further. "We're improving the cost every day. We started off some time ago at an uneconomical $17,000 a barrel. Today, we're at ... $28.84 a barrel," Rick Billo, UT's dean of engineering, told an Austin television reporter.