Energy experts like to call coal a bridge fuel leading to a future society based on hydrogen and other renewable energy sources.
It’s a dream based on technology that began early in the 1800s: Homes and city streets were lighted by coal gas throughout the 19th century. An estimated 50,000 small plants in the nation manufactured the gas from coal for local use.
The World War II German war machine, desperate for fuel, ran on diesel and other liquid fuels made from coal through a similar process developed there in the 1920s.
Then, in the 1980s, South Africa embraced the technology after it was cut off from global oil supplies over the issue of apartheid.
Here, cheap, plentiful natural gas replaced coal gas; and after World War II cheap, plentiful oil replaced the exotic German fuels.
In short, the economics didn’t work.
That’s changing. Hundreds of federally funded researchers are looking into new processes using coal to make natural gas, diesel fuel, jet fuel — and hydrogen.
Deriving liquid fuels from the country’s plentiful coal supplies could prove critical if crude oil production begins to fall off in the next few decades, as many experts expect.
“Energy security is the mantra for coal, ” said John Winslow, technology manager of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, an Energy Department research arm. “We are pushing out a lot of data now. It’s pretty interesting stuff. There is a lot of competition.”
The agency is also putting money into real-world projects, including a $100 million grant to a small company in Pottsville, Pa., 50 miles northeast of Harrisburg.
WMPI Pty., LLC, a company created by coal miner John Rich Jr., president of Waste Management and Processors Inc., and the Anthracite Co., says it will break ground next spring on a $600 million facility that will daily produce about 5,000 gallons of ultraclean diesel fuel from waste coal. Rich bought the technology from a Royal Dutch Shell division, and it is the same technology pioneered by the Germans and refined in South Africa.
Rich has talked to coal com pany executives in Ohio and half a dozen other states, saying he believes coal-based fuels can make a difference to national security.
“Exporting dollars for oil has to end,” he said. It’s important to build these plants throughout the country. It will change the whole dynamic.”
For decades, Uncle Sam has bankrolled researchers, and occasionally entrepreneurs, in hopes of laying a foundation for making coal mining less environmentally damaging and coal a better-used fuel.
Federal loan guarantees in the 1970s enabled investors to build a coal gasification plant near Bismarck, N.D., when experts believed that natural gas would run out or become too expensive. It didn’t, and the project failed, but the government sold the facility to a power cooperative.
Today the Great Plains Synfuels plant daily turns 16,000 tons of soft brown coal called lignite into 150 million cubic feet of natural gas, enough to heat 300,000 homes. The gas is sold to a major pipeline, said spokesman Daryl Hill. Byproducts include agricultural fertilizers, chemical feedstocks and carbon dioxide — all of which are sold to industry.
“The future looks good,” said Hill. “We are very optimistic.”
Another project that received a federal boost is the Syntroleum Corp.’s gas-to-liquids demonstration plant in Oklahoma. The facility in the last year has manufactured about 200,000 gallons of ultraclean diesel fuel for the Energy Department’s bus fleet fuel-testing projects.
Traditionally a research-and- development rather than a production company, Syntroleum is now looking to partner with a coal-to-gas company to take that gas and make liquid fuels, said spokesman Mel Scott.
Not all of the federally funded research has led to instant commercialization. The basic research often occurs years before a commercial application becomes economically feasible.
“We have done this work for a long time,” said University of Kentucky scientist Gerald Huffman of research into the fundamental chemistry of coal, gas and crude oil. “But we don’t seem to be able to turn the corner on it [commercial production].”
Often the Energy Department changes the focus of what it is willing to fund. The new focus is hydrogen production from coal, said Huffman, who is the director of a five-university Consortium for Fossil Fuel Science based at UK in Lexington. And this time a systems and economic analysis engineer is among the team of 60 researchers from UK, West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Utah and Auburn University.
His mission is to help determine commercial feasibility of the various projects, said Huffman.
Part of the problem of moving basic research to industry may be that many of the traditional Energy Department projects have involved electric utilities, not refiners or chemical plants, said Tina Karolchik Wafle, associate director of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University.
The technology of turning coal to gas and liquids is a tried and true one in the chemical industry. “But their specialty is making chemicals, not power. The petroleum industry’s specialty is making petroleum-based products. And utilities specialize in making electricity,” said Wafle.
But the federal focus is getting sharper. For example, gasification technology is the basis for a new power plant design from General Electric that would gasify the coal and clean up the pollutants before combustion in a turbine. The turbine would not only spin a generator, but its waste heat would be used to fire a steam boiler to run a second conventional turbine tied to a generator.
American Electric Power, based in Columbus, has proposed building such a plant. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio holds the first public hearings next week. AEP wants to increase electric rates to have consumers pay for the $1 billion facility over its 40-year lifetime.
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