The United States has an estimated 260 billion tons of recoverable coal, equivalent to three or four times as much energy in coal as Saudi Arabia has in oil. And, that’s only the coal that can be taken out of the ground today with existing technology — the total Demonstrated Reserve Base of USA coal is over 490 billion tons. And, if anyone fears that the USA may run out of coal too quickly, the North American oil shale deposits are estimated to hold over one trillion (1,000,000,000) barrels of oil, recoverable with technology that exists today. One trillion barrels of synthetic petroleum produced from American oil shale could supply the U.S. with an additional 15 million barrels of oil per day for the next 180 years. Future technology could double or triple the recoverable amount.
Today, the USA burns about one billion tons of coal per year in power plants. If the USA used one billion tons of coal each year to produce synthetic fuels, at about 3 barrels of oil (equivalent) per ton of coal, the USA could replace 68% of its imported oil with domestic coal.
At 12 million imported barrels per day, 68% is 8,160,000 barrels per day. [Just over 20% of oil imported into the USA comes from Persian Gulf nations, which are also members of OPEC. Less than 45% of oil imported into the USA today comes from OPEC.]
Synthetic fuels are needed because Energy Independence cannot be achieved until all cars, trucks, and buses on American highways are powered by fuels made in the USA, from sustainable American natural resources. Coal and oil shale resources in the USA are large enough to sustain U.S. transportation for more than 100 years; long enough to give engineers and entrepreneurs the time they need to develop affordable renewable and nuclear technologies that will sustain modern civilization indefinitely.
Gas-To-Liquids (GTL) technology is a process that will produce synthetic fuels from America’s abundant coal reserves. This technology is also called Coal-To-Liquids (CTL).
Synthetic diesel and Synthetic alcohol can be produced using CTL technology. The CTL process begins with the gasification step which produces syngas (synthesis gas). Gasification technology can be adapted to use any carbon resource, including coal, oil shale, oil sands, natural gas, biomass, landfill waste, and even carbon dioxide combined with hydrogen produced by electrolysis. In a reaction based on Fischer-Tropsch chemistry, the synthesis gas flows into a reactor containing a catalyst, where it is converted into synthetic hydrocarbons commonly referred to as synthetic petroleum or synthetic fuels.
The USA has an abundance of natural resources that can replace imported crude oil.
America has the technology and natural resources to end its oil dependence now by replacing all gasoline and diesel, made from imported oil, with synthetic fuels made from American coal and oil shale. But, fear of cheap foreign oil is holding investors back. Investors want some certainty — or, at least, a long-term government policy that they know they can count on to protect their investments from OPEC price manipulations and the whims of partisan political ideology.
The capital investment required for building a Coal-To-Liquids (CTL/GTL) refinery is billions of dollars, so private companies don’t want their money tied up in a synthetic fuels investment if world oil starts flowing again at under $50 per barrel. Until the American people, as a nation, place a value on energy independence, synthetic fuels will not compete with the price of Saudi oil. Saudi oil can be pumped out of the ground, loaded onto tankers, and shipped to the USA, or anywhere in the world, profitably, for less than $20 per barrel.
The barriers to developing a synthetic fuels industry are not technical, but social — By Galen J. Suppes, Ph.D. and Truman S. Storvick, Ph.D.
Galen J. Suppes is associate professor and Truman S. Storvick emeritus professor of the department of chemical engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia.