Because domestic coal supplies are plentiful, PNNL
researchers are looking at whether it can be cleanly and
efficiently converted to transportation fuels to replace
some of the 12 million barrels of oil the United State now
imports per day.
For years, coal drove the
transportation business in this
country, and it may be poised for a
comeback. A hundred years ago, steam
engines burned tons of coal as they
pulled trains across the country. Now
researchers are looking at converting
that coal to liquid fuel to fill our gas
tanks and move cars and trucks.
"With the price of gas painfully
high and with the negative foreign
trade balance and national security
issues associated with importing oil
from other countries, coal is getting
more than a second look," said George
Muntean, who manages PNNL's
Energy Conversion Initiative.
The technology already exists
to transform coal into a liquid fuel.
In fact, Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory scientists and engineers
have researched forms of coal and
hydrocarbon gasification on and off for
more than 30 years. But oil has never
sustained a high enough price to kickstart
a coal-to-liquid fuel industry.
That might be changing now.
Plus, experts agree worldwide
petroleum resources won't last forever,
and hydrocarbon resources like coal
may be the only resources available,
at a large enough scale, to off-set oil
consumption, in the near term.
"If coal is used cleanly and
efficiently, it can serve as an energy
bridge to the future in which
renewable energy and nuclear and
hydrogen-based energy sources will
make up our energy systems," said
Mike Davis, associate laboratory
director for the Energy Science and
The United States has the largest
coal reserves anywhere--about
one fourth of the world's supply.
But, historically, its impact on the
environment has been problematic.
While the process of converting
coal to a liquid is inherently cleaner
than burning coal to produce
electricity, there are still challenges
with water usage and air emissions--
especially carbon dioxide. CO2 is
implicated in global warming.
Solving the CO2 problem is one
of PNNL's biggest strengths when it
comes to utilizing coal. "We are at
the forefront of research into carbon
capture and sequestration,"
releases CO2 but also
produces a very highquality
The process to convert
this so-called syngas
to liquid fuel is called
Fischer-Tropsch, after two
German scientists who
developed the technology
in the early 20th century.
It was employed, in
conjunction with coal
gasification, during World
War II when Germany
had trouble importing
The liquid fuel
produced from coal can
be blended with traditionally refined
fuels, used by existing diesel engines
and transported and delivered in
the same manner as the diesel we're
all familiar with, so no change in
infrastructure is needed.
PNNL recently launched an
Energy Conversion Initiative--an
investment in identifying the
science and technology challenges
and defining the conditions for
commercial success needed for
economically and environmentally
sound use of domestic hydrocarbons,
such as coal.
In addition to the Laboratory's
expertise in carbon capture and
sequestration, researchers are building
on capabilities in FT synthesis,
catalysis and nanotechnology,
separations, materials and sensor
development to make the conversion
process more efficient--better,
faster, cheaper--and to reduce
capital costs of building coal-toliquid
PNNL is engaged with state
governments that are interested
in using their coal resources for
transportation fuels. PNNL hopes
to create government-industry
partnerships that will develop
process capabilities that can be
demonstrated in pilot or full-scale
commercial plants within five years.
"If we can tap this domestic
resource in a way that doesn't harm
the environment, we can really make
a dent in the 12 million barrels of
oil we import each day," Davis said.
"I believe it can be done."
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.