By Charlie Boothe
May 16, 2017 - An initiative to fuel interest in the gasification process to revitalize the coal industry continues, but traditional obstacles in its path still muddy the waters.
Dr. Dick Wolfe, president of Virginia Carbonite of Wise, Va. and a long-time advocate of clean coal technology, said the technology produces coal-derived syngas, which can be converted into gasoline and diesel or into methanol.
“Basically, what we are interested in doing is to bring the coal industry back with this technology,” he said.
Wolfe, who made his presentation on coal gasification to the Russell County Rotary Club last week, said the demand is worldwide.
“Converting it is a major big market,” he said, pointing out that it’s being done in some countries, like South Africa and China, every day and it’s not new technology.
Wolfe wants to build a processing plant in the area, possibly in Princeton, he said.
“Let’s use our coal,” he said. “We can even use thermal, high sulphur coal. We’ll use the coal that is less desirable but plentiful.”
Wolfe, who is a West Virginia native and now lives in North Carolina, said he continues to approach government leaders and has received some positive response.
“We are trying to put together this initiative,” he said. “I have already been asked to go to Charleston and speak to the coal association. We are really trying.”
Converting coal into transportation fuels is a market for coal that will create thousands of new jobs and put miners back to work, he said.
“All that is needed is a cooperative energy policy with the federal, state and industry working together with the resolve to become energy independent once and for all and finance, build and operate these plants,” he said.
Both Rick Taylor and Bill Raney, presidents of the Pocahontas Coal Association and the West Virginia Coal Association, respectively, agree that the overall objective is a good one.
However, the cost-effectiveness of gasification remains an issue.
“It (using coal gasification) has never gotten to the point that gasoline is too expensive (to justify the cost),” Taylor said. “If it were $5 or $6 a gallon, then it may be cost-effective.”
Taylor said he is not at all negative about the process.
“I like the innovation and the possibility of it happening,” he said, but reiterated that it will have to be “economically feasible.”
Raney agrees, and expresses concern that with the current low cost of gasoline, the path to gasification may be a slow one.
“We have so much oil now that I don’t know if it would ever be economical to do it,” he said.
Raney said he has known of several pilot projects to get a conversion process going, but they didn’t go far.
“We get those pilot projects in the planning stages but it then stalls,” he said. “I don’t know what the threshold (cost of gasoline per gallon) would be (to make gasification cost-effective).”
Raney said the process has been around for a long time, especially after alternatives were explored during the first oil price crisis in the early 1970s.
When Pres. Jimmy Carter was in office, he said, a project was started with the possibility of using rocket fuel from coal gasification because it burns better at high altitudes.
But even that project didn’t get beyond the pilot phase, he added.
The plant would have been constructed in Radford, Va.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “We have more coal than any other country in the world. So, if we can figure out how to do that it would be a great deal.”
According to an article in E&E News (Energy & Environment Publishing based in Washington, D.C.), U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other West Virginia politicians gathered in Mingo County in 2011 to “break ground for and sing the praises of what they said would be the first U.S. plant to turn coal into gasoline — and create hundreds of jobs on a former strip mine near the Kentucky line.”
But financing and other obstacles, such as the resurgence of natural gas, put the brakes on construction of the $3 billion plant.
Wolfe did get a refinery up and running in Lee County in the 1980s, a 1,000-barrel a day operation, he said, blending 10 percent coal liquids into gasoline and diesel, like ethanol is used today.
The refinery was moved to Bristol and sold “coal powered fuel” there from 1988 to 1992.
“When OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) cut crude oil prices to $12 to $15 a barrel, we could not be competitive and closed our 12 stations,” he said.
Wolfe said he understands the economics of it, and knows the construction of a large scale plant is expensive, with the one similar to the plant operating in South Africa costing about $2 billion. But that is about the cost of building a coal-fired power plant, he added.
Germany actually used coal gas as a fuel alternative for vehicles during World War II.
Regardless of the obstacles, Wolfe, who said clean coal technology is his “life’s work,” said he is pursuing the project.
Letters have been sent to the President and Energy Secretary Rick Perry requesting a meeting, he said, as well as Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va.
“Today, the USA still imports between six and eight million barrels of crude oil per day,” he said. “Even at the current low price of $50 per barrel, that means we pay out over $300 million per day from the economy. This is an energy plan that can bring the coal industry back … and make our own transportation fuels here at home from our own coal resources.”
Wolfe’s company in Wise produces carbonite, processed from coal and then converted into coke, using a cleaner process than traditional coke ovens.
Coke is primarily used as fuel in the steel-making process.
According to the Gasification & Syngas Technologies Council website, the demand for transportation fuels from coal is declining in the United States, but has increased “sharply” in other countries, especially those in Asia.
“The abundant supply of cheaper natural gas in the United States has been a game changer; with little interest in any type of coal project (gasification or otherwise) or the production of ‘substitute’ natural gas,” the website says.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy website, all or part of the clean syngas can also be used in other ways:
•As chemical “building blocks” to produce a broad range of higher-value liquid or gaseous fuels and chemicals (using processes well established in today’s chemical industry);
• As a fuel producer for highly efficient fuel cells or perhaps in the future, hydrogen turbines and fuel cell-turbine hybrid systems;
• As a source of hydrogen that can be separated from the gas stream and used as a fuel (for example, in the hydrogen-powered Freedom Car initiative) or as a feedstock for refineries (which use the hydrogen to upgrade petroleum products).
It’s also a “greener” way to create these products.
“Another advantage of gasification-based energy systems is that when oxygen is used in the gasifier (rather than air), the carbon dioxide produced by the process is in a concentrated gas stream, making it easier and less expensive to separate and capture,” the website says. “Once the carbon dioxide is captured, it can be sequestered – that is, prevented from escaping to the atmosphere, where it could otherwise potentially contribute to the ‘greenhouse effect.’”