Thursday, March 18, 2010

eureka moment for cheap coal gasification

GlobeandMail | Scientists in Texas say they have found a way to convert coal into gasoline at a cost of less than $30 (U.S.) a barrel - with zero release of pollutants.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) announced last month that they have developed a clean way to turn the cheapest kind of coal - lignite, common in Texas - into synthetic crude. "We go from that [lignite coal] to this really nice liquid," Brian Dennis, a member of the research team, said in describing the synthetic crude that can be refined into gasoline.

Assuming that these Texas folk are correct, this advance in technology could represent a historic moment in energy production - for Canada as well as for the United States. Canada has huge reserves of lignite coal in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan (which already gets 70 per cent of its electricity from this common coal) - not to mention in Nova Scotia.

The Texas researchers, who worked on the project for about 18 months, expect the cost to drop further. "We're improving the cost every day. We started off some time ago at an uneconomical $17,000 a barrel. Today, we're at ... $28.84 a barrel," Rick Billo, UTA's dean of engineering, told an Austin television reporter.

Texas lignite coal sells for $18 a tonne. The coal conversion technology uses one tonne of coal to produce 1.5 barrels of crude oil. One barrel of crude produces 42 U.S. gallons of gasoline. In other words, $18 worth of coal yields 63 gallons of gasoline: 0.28 cents a gallon.

In her report of the announcement, Dallas Morning News energy writer Elizabeth Souder said the U.S. government has approved construction of a small-scale microrefinery to test the UTA lab-based breakthrough. This prototype microrefinery should be in operation by year-end. "While the process doesn't create renewable fuel, it would create a domestic source for vehicle fuel and plastics," she reported.