Coal-Powered Jets

Lynne Kiesling

From Technology Review today, news of new research from Penn State on liquid fuel from coal:

Schobert and his colleagues make the fuel using refined coal oil, which is a byproduct of coke manufacture; the byproduct is mixed at an oil refinery with a product of crude oil called light cycle oil. This mix is then hydrogenated using equipment that already exists at refineries, and then it’s distilled into various products — mostly diesel fuel and jet fuel (about 40 percent of each), as well as some gasoline and heating oil.

Other potential benefits of the coal-based fuel: it can replace the three or four different jet fuels used by the military for aircraft and missiles, and the same fuel can be used in diesel engines if those engines are modified slightly. The fuel could also be used without modification in high-temperature stationary fuel cells for generating electricity, Schobert says.

But significant hurdles remain before the fuel can see widespread use. So far, only 500 gallons of it have been produced, far too little to assess production costs, Schobert says. Nevertheless, he suspects that the coal-based fuel could compete with other fuels.

One interesting thing about this development is its lack of asset specificity on the production and consumption end; it can be produced using existing refining technologies, and can be used in diesel engines with only a small amount of adjustment. That lack of asset specificity means that this fuel could contribute to a more flexible and adaptable fuel portfolio, because it doesn’t require customized plants or engines. It can even be used in fuel cells.

5 thoughts on “Coal-Powered Jets

  1. I’m curious as to its sulfur, lead and other trace element content. Coal is extremely impure. This may make a rather poor alternative fuel for emissions reasons.

  2. I wonder about that too. But if they are processing the refined coal using distillation, can’t they extract some of it? Parts of the article that I didn’t excerpt suggest that this stuff is burning relatively clean, and that it’s also doing a good job of heat management.

  3. But what about the upstream cost of production? How much coal oil is currently being produced and if this becomes a driver for increased production of coal oil what would be the incremental environmental and infrastructure costs?

  4. South Africa has been making liquid fuel from coal for ages now.

    Presumeably this method is improved in some respect, which would not be surprising, since the original method evidently dates back to the 20s.

  5. After the Germans lost access to Romania in WWII, they used coal oil as their major source of gasoline. vidently it worked, though it was very expensive.

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