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Coal-to-Liquid: a possible solution for the post-oil era?

Today, liquefied coal or CTL (Coal-to-Liquid) causes a new wave of interest.
Its liquefaction (gasoline, gas oil, domestic fuel) becomes interesting again, since it allows the production of a ton of oil equivalent around $45. The economical and social development of actual countries, while involving a rise in the standards of living, implies an increase in energy consumption in particular of fossil origin.

In order to meet such an increasing need of energy, CTL could become the most economic solution.

The liquefaction of coal: principles and technologies

The liquefaction of oil, process transforming coal from a solid state into a liquid fuel, goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. However, low prices and abundance of crude oil and natural gas reserves marginalized its application. Only some countries, among which Germany during the Second World War and South Africa since the Sixties, have massively liquefied coal.

Theoretically, hydrogenating coal is the only requirement to get oil products. Two processes coming from Germany exist: addition of hydrogen can either be made directly on coal (direct liquefaction) or on the gases issued from gasification (indirect liquefaction). The products obtained thanks to the first method are of very great quality - in particular the diesel from which sulfur and aromatic compounds are eliminated - and energy efficiency is nearly equal to 50%, against more than 60% for the indirect but with a much lower quality.

An alternative to petrol? At which cost?

Today, 96% of the energy consumed in transport comes from oil products. Its substitution by different alternative energies is justified by the reduction of the dependency with respect to oil.

Until 2003, with a price of the barrel of crude oil around $25, the CTL at $45 did not present any economical advantage. Today, coal is becoming the best option in order to guarantee the energy security of a country and to get away from high oil prices.

Being the two biggest oil consumers in the word, the United States and China are particularly vulnerable to the big rises of the crude and invest thus massively in this technology.

Various liquefaction projects are ongoing

  • With oil prices at historic highs, Pike County, where coal trucks rumble at all hours and miners blast away at black seams, is moving ahead with a controversial project to turn its vast coal reserves into barrels of liquid fuel. Indeed, the county plans to develop a $4 billion coal-to-liquid plant that would produce 50,000 barrels of liquid coal a day. Pike County joins a growing number of communities across the United States considering such facilities (Alaska, Montana, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Whitley, McCracken). Such efforts could help wean the nation from its reliance on foreign oil for transportation. The technology would strengthen national security and be cheaper than petroleum.
  • Oil imports have been increased in recent years to fuel China's booming economy, spurring the nation to look for technologies that can turn some of its coal reserves, one of the world's largest, into fuel and other chemicals. In 2008, China's largest coal company Shenhua Group produces China's first barrel of liquid fuel from coal, using direct coal liquefaction technology. With a budget of 12.3 billion Yuan and an annual production capacity of 5 million tons of oil, the project will be completed in two stages.
  • The sustained high oil prices and increasing oil imports, coupled with the country's rising demand for transportation fuels, has led to a perception that India's oil security is being threatened. India is thus actively pushing its companies to convert coal to liquid fuels (CTL). Initially, Oil India Limited (OIL) did some basic research on direct coal liquefaction, and they have now planned for a $2.5 billion project based on direct liquefaction to produce about 2 million barrels of liquid fuel.
  • Australia will promote development of an industry for the conversion of coal into cleaner transport fuels to improve security of supply. Australia's trade deficit in oil and refined fuels is set to expand within the next decade. Monash Energy, a venture between Anglo American Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, is considering building a plant in Victoria State to turn coal into motor fuel, while Linc Energy Ltd. is set to open a plant in Queensland that will produce 5 barrels a day of ultra-clean diesel from coal.

Over the last 20 years, the price of coal remained stable ($35 to $50 / ton) contrary to the price of oil which passed from $10 to more than $120 by barrel. In a world where everything depends on economy and where energy is essential for it, this aspect is far to be negligible and still promises great days for coal. Worldwide liquid coal production should rise from less than 200.000 barrels a day today to reach 1.800.000 Barrels daily in 2030.


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