Coal Gets Less Down and Dirty
by John Brian Shannon
For decades, the coal industry has been the energy sector ‘bad boy’ as far as the environmental movement was concerned
The list of negatives associated with the extraction, transportation, and use of coal are long and well-publicized. Today, however, the coal industry is on the cusp of a revolution — owing in part to proven technology and with huge thanks due to the environmental movement.
What? You heard right. Because environmental groups railed against the coal industry for years, substantial research was devoted to extracting high-quality fuels and other products from coal and they have succeeded spectacularly.
Rather than use coal in the most egregious way possible by burning it and sending the entire problem up the chimney to land in the next state or country, it turns out that raw coal can be broken down into hundreds of high-quality, synthetic-oil products.
It merely requires the right process. Who knew?
Since the advent of high and sustained petroleum prices, a way forward for high-tech coal has existed
A good example of this is coal-based diesel fuel derived from “Coal to Liquid” (CTL) technology which charts 100% lower sulfur content when compared to petroleum-based diesel fuel and in the case of carbon monoxide content up to 85% lower.
“Converting coal to a liquid fuel (CTL) — a process referred to as coal liquefaction — allows coal to be utilized as an alternative to oil. There are two different methods for converting coal into liquid fuels:
1) Direct liquefaction works by dissolving the coal in a solvent at high temperature and pressure. This process is highly efficient, but the liquid products require further refining to achieve high grade fuel characteristics.
2) Indirect liquefaction gasifies the coal to form a ‘syngas’ (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide). The syngas is then condensed over a catalyst–the ‘Fischer-Tropsch’ process–to produce high quality, ultra-clean products.
An array of products can be made via these processes – ultra-clean petroleum and diesel, as well as synthetic waxes, lubricants, chemical feedstocks, and alternative liquid fuels such as methanol and dimethyl ether (DME).” Source: Alliance for Synthetic Fuels in Europe
Here is a great example of this technology:
“South Africa has been producing coal-derived fuels since 1955…
Not only are CTL fuels used in cars and other vehicles, South Africa’s energy company Sasol CTL fuels also have approval to be utilized in commercial jets.
Currently around 30% of the country’s gasoline and diesel needs are produced from indigenous coal. The total capacity of the South African CTL operations now stands in excess of 160,000 barrels per day.
CTL is particularly suited to countries that rely heavily on oil imports and that have large domestic reserves of coal. There are a number of CTL projects around the world at various stages of development.
Liquid fuels from coal can be delivered from an existing pump at a filling station via existing distribution infrastructure and used, without modification, in the current vehicle fleet.” —- World Coal Association
North America has the largest coal reserves in the world. To illustrate the full extent of coal reserves at present usage rates, coal would last North America for 118 years. That’s how much proven coal resource is lying on the surface or buried at reachable depths in our own continent. Added to that, new coalfields are still being discovered in North America.
A move to CTL fuels wouldn’t lower total CO2 emissions significantly — as carbon dioxide is merely the by-product of any fossil-fuel combustion process. But switching to CTL will reduce very toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and other gases by switching to synthetic fuels.
The equation is simple; Use a clean fuel to get a clean burn
Rather than allow an industry to decline on account of toxic fallout caused by burning dirty raw coal, why not transform the coal industry into the cleanest fuel provider on the continent? This is within the realm of possibility if we employ our best technology.
It is an environmental success story just waiting to occur. What it will take for this to become reality is broad public support, commitment of environmental groups and dedicated legislators.
A motivated North American ‘Coal To Liquid’ industry could allow us to say goodbye to foreign oil and give us the ability to burn a super clean, synthetic fuel in our vehicles
It’s not the entire environmental solution — but it would be a great step in the right direction.
A previous version of my article appeared in the Huffington Post Canada in February 2012 under the title “Coal Gets Less Down and Dirty“