Coal has power to fuel independence
High fuel prices and renewed emphasis on energy independence could have consumers pumping gasoline made from coal in the not-too-distant future.
Itâ€™s not a pie-in-the-sky dream, researchers say, but proven technology pioneered in Germany and utilized in South Africa for more than 20 years.
Coal-to-liquid plants are now being proposed across the U.S., and West Virginia is among the top coal-rich states actively wooing private investors for the billions of dollars needed in start-up funding.
And, at least one researcher believes it â€œmakes senseâ€ to have such a plant in southern West Virginia, where there is an abundance of coal and transportation costs of the end product would be less than in the Midwest or West Coast.
â€œSomebody is going to build a CTL plant in your area,â€ Frank Clemente, senior professor of Energy Policy at Penn State University, said. â€œI guarantee it.â€
The U.S. has a huge problem with oil, and needs to kick its addiction, Clemente said.
â€œCoal is coming back,â€ he said. â€œThis is like â€˜Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,â€™ â€™â€™
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said he is committed to making West Virginia a leader in coal-to-liquid development.
â€œIt (coal-to-liquid technology) will be the most wonderful thing to happen to this state,â€ he said.
While Americans may have complained about the cost of oil â€” or, at least, gasoline off-and-on in recent decades â€” the nation has had a supply of crude. Thatâ€™s not always been the case for other countries.
This necessity for fuel spurred the development of the process to turn coal into gasoline. In 1925, Germans Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch pioneered an indirect liquefaction process to transform coal into liquid fuel.
â€œThe Germans didnâ€™t have any oil. They had to have access to fuel,â€ Clemente said, noting this coal-to-liquid process was used to fuel Nazi tanks and airplanes during World War II.
At peak production in 1944, Germany had 25 liquefaction plants that produced more than 124,000 barrels daily and met 90 percent of the nationâ€™s needs, the National Mining Association reports.
Experiments in coal-to-liquid technology did not go far in the U.S. But in South Africa, it was a different story.
In the 1950s, the company Sasol developed a commercial coal liquids industry to produce gasoline and diesel using synthetic gas created from the gasification of coal, according to the Mining Association.
For South Africa, gasoline from coal was, again, a matter of necessity.
Due to apartheid-related embargoes, the country was forced to develop a technology to fuel its nation, Clemente said.
Since the early 1980s, Sasol has produced more than 700 million barrels of synthetic fuels from coal, the Mining Association states. And about 85 percent of the coal consumed in the country is used as fuel feedstock or to produce electricity.
Sasol continues to be a driving force in CTL development and technology, with U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, R-Va., calling it â€œthe world leaderâ€ in production of coal to liquids.
Coal can be transformed into fuel by two methods:
â€” Direct liquefaction, in which coal is broken down in a solvent at high temperature and pressure, followed by interaction with hydrogen gas and a catalyst.
â€” And indirect liquefaction, a process that first gasifies coal, and then uses this â€œsyngasâ€ to make synthetic fuels.
Gasification of coal involves heating it above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit with oxygen inside a pressurized chamber.
During South Africaâ€™s coal-to-liquid reign, West Virginia almost had a foray into the technology.
In the 1970s, a synthetic refined coal program was developed during the energy crisis in that decade, according to energy advisor to Gov. Manchin, Pat Esposito. The first demonstration plant for the program was slated to be built in Fort Martin, near Morgantown.
But, â€œOPEC turned the spigot back on,â€ Esposito said.
When the administration headed by President Ronald Reagan then came in, the program was canceled due to a perceived lack of need, he said.
Yet, Esposito posed the question: â€œIf we started at that point, where would the country be now?â€
In an age when environment friendliness can be a key concern, coal-to-gasoline has its perks.
The basics of the Fischer-Tropsch process is to take coal and gasify it, then liquefy it, Clemente said.
â€œWhat you come out with is gasoline and diesel.â€ he said. â€œThe fuel you get from this is cleaner and more efficient. The end product is cleaner.â€
The sulfur is taken out of coal during the conversion process, Clemente said.
Another problem with coal is the release of carbon monoxide, he said, explaining this, too, can be taken out and sequestered using coal-to-liquid technology.
â€œYou can store it so you donâ€™t have it going into the environment,â€ he said.
The magic number
If coal-to-liquid technology is possibly and potentially better for the environment, why hasnâ€™t the U.S. pursued the technology?
Until recently, it didnâ€™t make sense â€” dollars and sense, that is.
Department of Energy numbers indicate CTL technology is not economically feasible unless the price of crude oil is $40 a barrel of higher, Boucher said. In recent weeks, the price of crude has hovered at $70 a barrel or higher, and the DOE is forecasting this trend will continue for about 25 years, he said.
But not all are convinced of this economic forecast.
Boucher said some Wall Street analysts believe â€œif you take the political risk component out of the price of oil, the price will settle back down to about $35 per barrel.â€
The â€œpolitical componentâ€ being a resolution to the Iraq War, â€œthe nuclear issue in Iran,â€ or other hot-button global issues, he said.
Until recently, the â€œprice pointâ€ has not existed, Esposito said. â€œThereâ€™s no reason why folks would pay for synthetic fuels.â€
But high crude oil prices now make CTL a viable option, experts say, although there is estimated initial costs of a billion or more to construct such a plant.
In West Virginia, Manchin has reactivated the stateâ€™s long-dormant Public Energy Authority, agency Executive Director Paul Hardesty said.
The organization has bonding authority â€œto facilitate projects such as coal-to-liquids or any other type of alternative fuel,â€ he said.
â€œJust about any state that has coal as a resource is looking at this as an opportunity,â€ Esposito said.
â€œA typical coal-to-liquid plant would use about 6 million tons of coal a year,â€ Clemente said, noting a proposed plant anticipates â€œproducing about 20 thousand barrels of a day.â€
Clemente said he is unaware of any operational coal-to-liquid plants in the United States. â€œAll are under construction or being planned. They (working plants) are in Asia or South Africa.â€
But, Clemente emphasized, this is an established method.
â€œThis is not a pie-in-the-sky technology,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s worked for almost 100 years … itâ€™s not science fiction.â€
Manchin has charged his energy officials to study and move forward with this process, he said.
The demand for fuel products makes the potential for multiple coal-to-liquid plants feasible â€” not just in the U.S., but West Virginia, Esposito said.
â€œI think West Virginia is in an ideal position,â€ he said. â€œAny state that has coal could have several facilities, and it would only be a drop in the bucket.â€