Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Peak Oil: Meet SRI's Cheap, Clean New Coal to Liquids Process

Research from SRI International has identified a promising new way to produce liquid transportation fuels from coal without consuming water or generating carbon dioxide. Based on data from bench-scale tests, SRI engineers estimate that the capital cost for a full-scale plant using SRI's process would be less than half that of a conventional coal-to-liquids (CTL) plant that uses a process called Fischer-Tropsch synthesis (FTS). _Marketwatch
Given the vast reserves of coal residing in the nations of the Anglosphere, a cheap and clean coal-to-liquids (CTL) process sounds like a dream. Interestingly, SRI's new cheap & clean CTL process also relies on another plentiful hydrocarbon: natural gas, or methane.
SRI's new process uses natural gas to provide the hydrogen needed to convert coal to syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen). Syngas is first converted into methanol, which can then be efficiently processed to make transportation fuels.

Using natural gas eliminates the need to add water as a source of hydrogen, reduces the need to add energy to drive the gasification reaction, and results in the use of a smaller gasifier. In conventional CTL approaches, energy is supplied by burning a portion of the coal feed, which then produces carbon dioxide. SRI's approach makes it economical to use carbon neutral electricity, such as nuclear, hydro, or solar as a source of additional energy.

"The implications of this research are expansive, including enhancing US energy security through the use of domestic carbon sources," said Robert Wilson, Ph.D., director, Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory, SRI International. "The process can also dramatically reduce the environmental footprint associated with alternative transportation fuels."

...The SRI process was recently presented at the 28th Annual International Pittsburgh Coal Conference in a presentation titled, "Coal Gasification with Methane Reforming: A Novel Environmentally Benign CTL Process" by Ripudaman Malhotra, associate director of SRI's Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory. _Marketwatch
Of course, we cannot expect the US Obama administration to support this vast, cheap, clean new source of liquid fuels and chemicals. Not in the same way it has supported crony enterprises in big solar and big wind energy. CTL is a reliable form of energy and fuels, after all. Obama only likes and invests in unreliable forms of energy -- particularly if the firms are likely to go bankrupt.
Regardless, this type of alternative form of liquid hydrocarbon production is likely to emerge, once the energy starvationists are chased out of positions of power and influence. Advanced CTL will take its place alongside advanced and scalable forms of gas-to-liquids (GTL) as viable alternatives to crude oil, for transportation fuels, chemical feedstocks, and as precursors to a wide range of important materials.

More from GreenCarCongress:
SRI estimates the efficiency of its CTL plant at 67%—significantly higher then traditional CTL plants predominately because it is converting 100% of the carbon feed into product and it utilizes electricity generated off-site. Accounting for the heat rate of generating that electricity from a traditional coal plant would result in a plant efficiency of 47%.
The implications of this research are expansive, including enhancing US energy security through the use of domestic carbon sources. The process can also dramatically reduce the environmental footprint associated with alternative transportation fuels.

—Robert Wilson, Ph.D., director, Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory, SRI International
SRI performed a series of analyses to examine the environmental impact of the technology under several scenarios. Based on these analyses, if diesel were produced using biogas as the source of methane, the resulting product would qualify as an alternative fuel under the revised Renewable Fuels Standard of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The Act requires alternative fuels to meet a standard of 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to other fuels.

The work was supported by DARPA under Contract No. HR0011-10-0049.

DARPA solicitation. The DARPA solicitation set goals for a coal-to-liquids process for JP-8 of:
Process scalable to 100,000 bbl/day
Production cost of JP8 less than $3.00/gallon
No CO2 emissions during process
Water consumption less than 235 kg/barrel
Capital cost less than $15,000/daily barrel
(The availability of CO2-free electricity was assumed.)
Images via GCC

A small modular nuclear reactor paired with such a plant would allow a company to locate the CTL plant near the fossil fuel resource, to minimise transport costs, and maximise operating efficiency to near 67%.

More: Be sure to check out coverage of this story by Brian Westenhaus and Brian Wang

This story reminds us that with huge piles of coal, kerogens, bitumens, and methane lying around, clever people will find ways to deal with the threats of political peak oil coming from OPEC, Russia, and the Obama White House.

PS: Don't forget all that offshore and Arctic oil that Mr. Obama has put off limits, and the abundant and replenishing supply of methane hydrates just waiting for a clever person to discover how to safely and cleanly extract and utilise them.

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Blogger Benjamin said...

UT Arlington has been saying they have brown-coal-to-liquid ready at $40 a barrel...and they have been saying that for years.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Whirlwind22 said...

Won't this just make coal run out faster? I mean we already use it for our power plants and stuff.

1:57 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Benjamin: Academics generally do not understand real world business and what it takes to get things done. SRI is in a different class.

WW22: Coal run out? Seriously? Obama has been shutting down coal plants since he got into office, and his EPA is now going into coal shutdown overdrive.

North American coal resources are the largest in the world, and yet largely undiscovered to this point even so.

People who talk about resources like coal, methane, or methane hydrates running out have never developed a sense of scale or perspective.

6:19 AM  

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