Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Coal Liquefaction

US energy policies and practices affect the ability of "We the People" to continue driving our diesel vehicles.

Shortly after World War II, the United States started to import oil in order to meet its growing demand for finished petro-chemical products. The rapid escalation of plastics used in packaging, domestic utensils, automobiles and virtually every aspect of American life added to the increasing demand for petroleum. Electric generating plants that run on diesel have been easy to construct as have steam plants supplied by petroleum. This has added to the ever-increasing demand curve for petroleum. Along the way, US domestic production has increased but it could not keep up with the rapid increase in demand. As a result, petroleum imports surged to ever higher levels. Electric generating plants began to shift to burning domestic coal and natural gas, however, the demand for petroleum has not slackened. Nuclear power plants came on line with great promise. Unfortunately, public hysteria cut short the promise of a nation powered by nuclear generated electricity. Modern clean coal fired generating plants began to replace old less efficient power plants with great promise to use the vast quantities of domestic coal reserves in the US. Again, this promising technology would fall to public hysteria: smaller in number than nuclear opponents, they compensated with fanatic hyping of man-made climate change, global warming.

Transportation, The US’s Primary Energy Consumer

Like the production of electricity, the quest to provide fuel for the huge fleet of vehicles in daily use across America has followed a similar path of frustration. America, so different from the smaller European countries, is a vast nation stretching over 3,000 miles coast-to-coast; this does not even consider the distance to Alaska. These great distances require intricate networks of roads to provide transportation for people and especially for goods. The majority of all products in the US are moved by trucks. Certainly trains and ships move large amounts of products to dropping points but then trucks take over. When the American economy is running full steam the consumption of fuel for transportation is incredible, reaching 14.6 million barrels daily. That is 71% of the 20.6 million barrels of total daily consumption. The pie chart on page 60 shows the breakdown of oil used in the US. It is important to note that 24% is consumed by industrial activities. Again, the petro-chemical industries are the principle constituents in this sector. Why emphasize this statistic? To clarify that reducing transportation consumption will not alleviate our need to utilize crude oil; we use oil in large quantities for numerous other products.
The Country of Origin table relates the sources of US daily consumption of 20.6 million barrels of petroleum oil (Energy Information Administration, US Government). Imports are approximately 70% or 14 million barrels daily.
The 10 countries listed supplied 80% of US petroleum imports. Several other countries supply amounts less than one percent to complete the total oil imported. Domestic production of petroleum has slipped to five million barrels per day and will not likely increase; in fact, it may decrease in the future if drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Bakken Oil Reserves in Montana, North and South Dakota, the most promising areas of exploration for domestic oil production, are not properly exploited.


Conservation through better fuel mileage and the use of alternatives for plastics and other petro-chemical products may save up to two million barrels perday in consumption. As illustrated in the pie chart, very little oil is used in electric power generation so it takes some ingenuity to save on oil consumption by using alternative energy sources to generate electricity. Billionaire oilman, Boone Pickens, has suggested that using compressed natural gas for transportation and replacing the same amount of natural gas used in generating electricity, with wind and solar power, would allow us to reduce oil consumed in transportation by two million barrels per day.

Electric Cars: Not So Efficient, Not So Clean

Plug-in electric powered cars offer a simple, seemingly clean vehicle for urban driving and the perception of conservation. Unfortunately, the need to charge the batteries from the electric grid eliminates any real advantage over conventional propulsion. Electric power plants are 70% efficient at best, so burning a fossil fuel to generate electricity loses 30% of the energy content right away. The transmission lines may lose another 10% so 40% of the energy is lost before we ever get it to the car. The electric motor in the vehicle requires the same energy as the internal combustion engine to move the vehicle so there is nothing gained there. In the end, we may be using more energy in electric models than we would by just putting the fuel directly into our petroleum-powered vehicles. The only real way that I could see to make sense of a move to electric cars would be if vitually all of the electricity consumed was generated by nuclear plants: then this so-called clean solution might make more sense.

An Energy Solution

The one clear answer for future US energy supply, for several hundred years, is the use of coal. Coal can be burned very well with little pollution in modern coal fired electricity generating plants. Additionally, coal can be liquefied providing excellent, extremely low sulfur diesel, kerosene and jet fuel. It is even possible to make a substitute for gasoline.
The only thing standing in our way of vast amounts of affordable energy through coal is the government of the United States. Our government has decided to chase the fairytale of global warming and press for the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2). In turn, any solution using a hydro-carbon is considered a contributor to global warming and is immediately discarded as not viable. It is interesting to note, the government purports to support nuclear power but, in fact, has struck a crippling blow to nuclear power plant construction by pulling federal funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, located in Nevada.
Using the numbers from above, and if Boone Pickens plan were implemented, then four million barrels of the 14.6 million barrels could be eliminated leaving 10.6 million barrels for import. Most experts believe deep water exploration in the Gulf of Mexico will provide new sources of production. Others believe the Bakken Oil Reserves will be another source of increased domestic production. In either case, it may only be enough to overcome the dropping production from Alaskan oil. Considering the US fleet of vehicles, both personal and commercial, it is unlikely that any effort to radically change the types of vehicles in the fleet could be successful in less than 20 years. So again, the only viable alternative to importing oil for fuel is coal liquefaction. We cannot remove the vehicles that require diesel and gas in the short term and the need for jet fuel continues to increase. So far, no substitute for jet engines has been suggested and a return to prop planes driven by electric motors seems unlikely at best.
The solutions to US energy needs are not overly complex: increased production, intelligent conservation and innovation.
Production must include:
  • Drilling and exploiting all possible domestic reserves of petroleum and natural gas.
  • Developing clean coal technologies; including liquefaction for diesel, kerosene and jet fuel.
  • Committing to the greatest construction project ever attempted, by building 1,000 nuclear generating plants, to make the US 80% reliant on nuclear generated electricity.
  • Accelerate the manufacturing and installing of wind turbines and solar generating stations to complete the remaining 20% of US demand for electricity.
  • Conservation through better fuel economy for all vehicles.
  • Convenient efficient mass transit in all metropolitan areas.
  • Expansion of national railroads to more efficiently move freight throughout the country.
  • The use of more efficient turbo-prop planes for short duration flights.
  • High speed trans-oceanic passenger ships for folks not in such a big hurry.
  • More efficient appliances and better insulated homes and buildings.
Through innovation, new technologies will emerge offering amazing alternatives to the machines that we use daily. Eventually, a fuel cell for cars will become a reality and electric cars charged by electricity from nuclear, wind or solar generation will be commonplace. Electric bullet trains will be speeding both passengers and freight at 200 miles per hour on electrified rail corridors. And, in 50 or 100 years, fusion reactors will replace fission reactors and this unlimited source of energy will allow humans to reach their greatest potential.
We have the resources, the technology and the vision available to become energy independent, maintaining a vibrant economy in the transition. What we lack is determined and effective political leadership to make it happen.

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