By Clinton Crackel
October 6, 2017 - The Fischer-Tropsch process was developed in Germany in 1925 as means to convert coal into synthetic fuel for use in motorized vehicles. During World War II this process accounted for approximately 9% of the total German war production of fuel and 25% for automobiles.
In 2012, Princeton University researchers found the United States could eliminate the need for crude oil by substituting it with synthetic fuels (Sullivan, John. "Synthetic fuels could eliminate entire U.S. need for crude oil, create 'new economy'." News at Princeton. N.p., 27 Nov. 2012. Web.). At least we could eliminate our dependence on foreign oil by substituting it with the Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-liquid (CTL) synthetic fuel process in order to create jobs and revive the American coal industry that has been stymied by harsh environmental and political constraints.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal is our most abundant natural resource. The recoverable U.S. coal reserve is equivalent in energy to 900 billion barrels of oil.
The current price of a barrel of oil is roughly $52. However, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) maximum price per barrel of oil is predicted by The Economy Forecast Agency to be $86.40 by August 2019. Also, WTI spot prices for oil have exceeded $100 per barrel in 24 monthly periods since March, 2008.
The Princeton University researchers estimated the cost of producing the synthetic equivalent of a barrel of crude oil was $83.58 to $95.11. However, from the date of the article to now, the price of coal in two of our coal regions has dropped from approximately $60 per short ton to $40 per short ton. Therefore, a reduced cost of coal should decrease the cost of producing synthetic fuel.
Many environmental advocates have recognized that synthetic fuels have a much lower or even zero content of sulfur, heavy metals and other toxic and environmentally damaging impurities. Also, unlike many biofuels, synthetic fuels can be used in gasoline and diesel engines with no need for modifications.
Although there has been an interest in the Fischer-Tropsch CTL process in the U.S. in the past, it doesn’t appear to be in use in this country at this time. As far as I know, the only commercial Fischer-Tropsch CTL synthetic fuel production facility in the world is owned and operated by the South African company Susol. However, China recognizes the advantages of the process and is now constructing several large CTL synthetic fuel production projects.
Environmental and political constraints, in addition to high construction costs, have prevented the construction of Fischer-Tropsch CTL synthetic fuel production facilities in our country. However, it is conceivable public and private funding could be available to offset construction costs of such facilities if our political leaders favor the use of coal in synthetic fuel production.
Since the Fischer-Tropsch CTL process requires heat in the range of a few hundred degrees Celsius, perhaps emission-free small modular reactors could serve as the heat source for future Fischer-Tropsch CTL synthetic fuel processing facilities.
Since even before the American Industrial Revolution coal has played a vital role in fulfilling the energy needs of our nation. It deserves the chance to continue to prove its worth to our nation by serving as the principal feedstock for synthetic fuel production.