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9 Apr, 2008 02:01 pm
Coal may appear as a vast and alternative carbon-resource in the face of escalating conventional crude oil prices, but implementing the technology to make synthetic diesel from coal on a scale comparable to current demand for oil-based fuels is unlikely to be done before oil-supplies begin to dwindle. We have almost certainly left it too late for coal or other technologies to be introduced in sufficient amount, certainly if world oil production does "peak" in 5-10 years, as predicted, and are inevitably headed for significantly lower-energy lifestyles, by whatever means that will come about. Addressing the depletion of fossil resources is a greater problem than controlling CO2 emissions, since the former phenomenon will inevitably reduce carbon emissions worldwide if there is less carbon to burn in the first place, but if the transition from the present "Oil Plenty Era" to the beckoning "Oil Dearth Era" is not adequately managed, civilization will collapse for the lack of sufficient energy to maintain it's integrity.
Rudoph Diesel, of the same name as the engine he invented, had thought that coal-dust could be used as a fuel for the latter, but decided against this after a number of his engines thereby exploded - he thence decided to use oil from plants e.g. sunflower oil as a fuel. It is interesting that Henry Ford, the inventor of the Model T Ford, the first car to be produced on a production-line, believed that petroleum was in limited supply and developed his first cars to run on ethanol as a fuel. It is quite salutary that we are now considering similar alternatives to oil (biofuels), as the latter falls into declining provision. Ford was right that there is only so much oil in recoverable form, but only after a trillion or so barrels were discovered especially under the lands of Russia and the Middle East. Now this bounty will appear as a mere spike on the record of history, but for our own experience the consequences of its depletion will hit hard.
I have just read a novel by James Howard Kunstler, entitled "World Made By Hand." It is very well written and alarming in a disarming, down-played kind of way. He describes, through the medium of the novel form, a subsequent region of Albany, New York State, which has been reduced to practically medieval times as a result of oil being a rare commodity. There are gangs - one driven by religion and the other by brute force - who act in control of much that still exists there, although the "New Faith" group are tougher than the biker/gangsters, as the latter find to their detriment. What is instilled through the reading is a subtle sense of slowness, that literally the way of life is restored to pre-oil fashion, and emphasis is placed necessarily on food, salvage and repair, as will become the truth in the absence of alternative sources of energy.
I am "into" technology, don't get me wrong. I was a (Full) Professor in Physical Chemistry until I decided to set-up my own consulting business five years ago, and hence I am quite aware of what is involved, but in truth until I began writing on the subject of "energy" a couple of years back, having attended on the UK government's programme to solve the problem of providing "UK Energy to 2050", at the Geological Society and witnessed its conclusions unveiled at The Royal Society, I didn't quite realise the enormous amount of energy the world uses, and matching that by other means than fossil fuels will not be readily accomplished, if at all. My fear and suspicion is that we have left it a bit too late. If we had began alternatives to petroleum thirty-five years ago when OPEC launched the first artificial oil-crises, we might be somewhere close to achieving alternative and renewable energy provision, but we are a long way off as things stand.
Kunstler has written a number of books including "The Long Emergency" which relates specifically to conditions in the US, where life depends almost inextricably on cheap oil, given the necessary large distances that need to be traversed in daily life around urbanized America. I remember during one of my lecture tours of the US, having to cross an eight-lane highway to get to the only shop in the area to buy a carton of milk. Being car-less in America is not easy! In Europe our likely problems are similar, but our nations are smaller and a relocalisation of society will be more easily accomplished, although it will not be a voluntary event.
So, back to the coal. As noted, the technology exists in proven form. Not only the Germans during WWII but also the Sasol company in South Africa, a nation that was also starved of oil, for various political reasons of sanction, have turned coal into fuel - the latter still do, and a friend of mine in SA tells me that it is thought there is 30 years worth of coal left there to do so. There are two essential methods for coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology, the direct, i.e. the Bergius Process which involves the hydrogenation of coal powder as dispersed in a high boiling fluid under pressure and the indirect, Fischer-Tropsch method which involves the conversion of solid coal into a gaseous mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide which is then reacted over a cobalt catalyst (iron works too) to form a mixture of hydrocarbons. High molecular weight "waxes" are a predominant component of the FT process, but these can be "cracked" into smaller molecules that find better use as a fuel for conventional transportation.
If this is going to take-off, in Illinois and elsewhere, including Yorkshire and the South-Wales of my boyhood, UK, where there are still some considerable reserves of coal, a huge capital investment will be required, and as with all putative "oil-dearth-era" technologies, construction needs to be started as soon as possible. Even the CEO of Shell reckons that world supplies of oil will not be able to keep up with demand for it by 2015, and I would guess that it will take considerably longer than that to match the oil-decline that will thence occur. There are necessarily issues of CO2 emissions, i.e. if the overall production of carbon is considered from well-to-wheel, the CTL strategy is heavier in CO2 emissions than conventional production from oil-wells, by about 50%. However, I think that CO2 emissions, while thought influential to climate change etc., are the least of our worries. As we begin to run-out of fossil fuels we will put less CO2 into the atmosphere per se , and it is really the challenge of energy provision that is the most confrontational issue for humankind to address and solve, if it can.
First published at: "Energy Balance", http://ergobalance.blogspot.com, March 17, 2008.
"Mining for Diesel Fuel; The Search for New Oil Sources Leads to Processed Coal."By Matthew T. Wald. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/05/business/05coalfuel.html