Published on Jan 19, 2020

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Using our natural resources wisely is never a bad thing, which is why many companies and consumers alike have begun considering the coal to liquids process as a way to curb both high gas prices and environmental pollution. While fuel itself may not be a naturally occurring substance, coal is, and turning it into something we can all use will be beneficial to both our wallets and our ecosystem. Learning more about the coal to liquids process is essential for it to increase in popularity, and thus have a chance at becoming the next way to fuel our cars.

Coal can be turned into liquid fuel in a few ways. Indirect liquefaction is just one way to do so. It requires that the coal first be converted to synthesis gas, hereafter referred to as syngas. It is made up of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and it less dense than natural gas. Syngas must then be converted to liquid fuel, and there are two ways to do this. The Fischer-Tropsch process is the most popular method of indirect liquefaction. This procedure begins by eliminating any impurities from the syngas, such as sulfur and mercury, and then further filtering the gas so that the product is gasoline or diesel that is free of contamination.

Another method of indirect liquefaction is the Mobil process, which involves natural gas first being changed to syngas, which is then changed to methanol. The product is dehydrated and converted to liquid gas. The name of the process might sound familiar; this method was created by Mobil in the 1970s as an alternative to the Fischer-Tropsch process. However, there is yet another possible way for coal to become liquid fuel.

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Direct liquefaction is the other way to change coal to liquids, and is mainly comprised of removing the carbon that is naturally inside coal, and replacing it with the hydrogen that it lacks. With this method, coal comes in direct contact with a catalyst while being raised to extremely high temperatures. Hydrogen is then introduced in its pressurized environment until a synthetic crude oil is produced. The product can be filtered and cleaned to create liquid fuel.

Although any of those three processes can be used to turn coal to liquids, the most common is the Fischer-Tropsch method. Opponents of this particular method, and of the idea of turning coal to liquids in general, claim that the process allows a sizeable amount of carbon dioxide to permeate the atmosphere. It is true that the Fischer-Tropsch method produces carbon dioxide, and that it must be removed from the resulting liquid fuel before it can be called a clean fuel and sold on the market. However, experts have come up with a solution to this potential problem. They propose that the carbon dioxide be sequestered during the process, which would involve keeping that particular gas underground. After the coal is turned to gas, there is a cavity left under the earth’s surface where the solid coal once was. The carbon dioxide that is filtered out of the liquid gas could be stored in this large empty space, ensuring that it never reaches the atmosphere.

Despite questions about the coal to liquids technology, recent research has found that its benefits outweigh any possible issues with it. The US currently imports over half of its oil, and most people would agree that eliminating our reliance on other countries for our energy source would be a positive step. Not only would it make gasoline more accessible to this country’s citizens, but it would also greatly decrease the cost. Our nation currently has over 250 billion tons of coal, all of which could be used to our advantage when it comes to providing a new energy source. Several companies are ready to convert entirely to the coal to liquids process, and are currently outfitting plants around the world in preparation for it to become the mainstream source of gasoline. Those who have been working with coal to liquids for years are excited about this prospect. All that remains is educating the public about the ways in which it can benefit everyone.

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