Zero Emissions Gasoline Production

There is no disputing that transportation is a major contributor to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and is almost as great an offender as coal fired electrical plants. Roughly twenty pounds of CO2 are emitted for every gallon of petroleum fuel burned in an internal combustion engine or furnace, and with almost a billion gallons going up in smoke every day in the United States alone, you're looking at 10 million tons coming out of American tailpipes daily. And that's just at the tailpipe. Factor in emissions from oil refining, and the figure almost doubles and amounts to literally billions of tons per year.

Any major reduction in C02 emissions has to include big changes in the transportation sector. If nothing changes there, nothing changes anywhere. But how to proceed?

Most of the proposals involve increasing fuel efficiency, transitioning to hybrid vehicles, or using more biofuels. That's the orthodoxy. But recently I heard a highly unorthodox proposal that merits consideration.

What if you could continue to use conventional vehicles running on gasoline or diesel and whack emissions by nearly 50% without changing the engine in any way, without driving less, and with lower fuel prices to boot?

That was the claim that was made to me by Al Forbes, president of Independent Energy Partners (IEP) in Colorado.

Before I explain Forbes' approach I should mention that I get a lot of pitches from alternative fuel companies. Everybody's got a solution to our energy problems, and all these entrepreneurs need is a few million dollars apiece to finalize their solutions. It's kind of like cancer cures and holistic medicine. Who do you believe?

If you're like me, you tend not to believe anyone. You just assume that the individual is a fraudster until absolute proof of the opposite emerges. And it almost never does. In three years spent covering the alternative fuels universe, I've heard maybe four or five pitches I've halfway believed. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that all evidence suggests that there is no easy solution to our fuel problem, no way to make cheap clean motor fuel on a massive scale.

That said, I'll explain Forbes' claim and why it is at least superficially plausible.

In Situ Coal-to-Liquids, a New Wrinkle

What IEP proposes to do is known as in situ coal gasification. But before I get to the specifics of the process, let me explain coal gasification in general and in particular surface processing which is the dominant technology today.

Conventional coal gasification entails heating coal in a relatively oxygen starved atmosphere at a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius and at moderate pressures. This results in the formation of synthesis gas—syngas for short—which is the same stuff the Victorians used for gaslights. Syngas consists mostly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and it's considered a medium BTU fuel, that is, it's less energy dense than natural gas which largely replaced it in the marketplace.

Syngas's real value is as a feedstock. You can make chemicals such as ammonia and methane out of it, and you can also make diesel, gasoline, and petrochemicals.

People have made gasoline and diesel from coal derived syngas for a long time. Germany did it in World War II and so did Apartheid era South Africa. In fact South Africa still produces a lot of liquid fuel by this means. And there are several projects underway to replicate these efforts in North America.

The problem is that the economics have always been marginal and they are becoming more marginal as coal prices ramp up. Still, with record prices for conventional petroleum, the idea won't go away.

Producing liquid fuels from syngas by conventional methods involves a surface gasification unit followed by what is known as a Fischer Tropsch (FT) reactor where long hydrocarbon chains are grown by passing the syngas over a catalyst at high pressure and moderate temperatures. Both are massive structures covering acres of ground in full commercial production facilities.

The capital costs for large facilities capable of producing 100,000 barrels per day are believed to be north of $4 billion, but no one knows for certain because nothing that large has been built recently. Interestingly, in the past, the synfuel industry, such as it was, has been characterized by massive cost overruns. So the real capital cost of a facility could be over $8 billion.

A number of major consulting firms including RAND Corporation, Mitretek, and Bechtel have attempted to estimate cost per barrel, and the figures have been widely divergent—from $25 per barrel up to $65, with the higher figures being more credible in my opinion. That's one reason coal-to-liquids hasn't gone anywhere here. Until recently oil prices were such that it was simply noncompetitive.

The other reason is that it is so dirty. You get approximately twice the CO2 from a FT facility as from an ordinary oil refinery. From a carbon mitigation perspective it's a nonstarter.

Which brings us to in situ coal gasification.

In situ coal gasification is the production of syngas right in the coal seam deep underground. You bore into the seam with a drilling rig instead of excavating a mine, and you then start a fire in the bore hole. That produces a combination of syngas and CO2. This is an oversimplification, but it's basically how the process works.

In situ gasification was done in Russia throughout most of the twentieth century though the process was abandoned after 1996. Because Russia has so much natural gas and because it is much cheaper to make syngas from natural gas, ultimately economics didn't pan out there. But in North America where supplies of accessible natural gas are beginning to run low, it looks more promising. Ergo Energy is the chief proponent in the U.S., and they claim they can produce liquid fuels for $18 per barrel though this claim has never been validiated. They also claim that they can sequester the CO2 on the spot in the coal seam for effectively zero emissions production.

IEP claims even lower cost. How they achieve them is the subject of my next article.