Synthetic fuel

Synthetic fuel or synfuel is any liquid fuel obtained from coal, natural gas, or biomass. It can sometimes refer to fuels derived from other solids such as oil shale, tar sand, waste plastics, or from the fermentation of biomatter. It can also (less often) refer to gaseous fuels produced in a similar way.


The technology for transforming natural gas, biomass, or coal into synthetic fuel was invented by Franz Fischer and Hans Trophsch in the 1920s. The Fischer-Tropsch process transforms gas derived from coal (or other substances) into liquid gas. The Fischer-Tropsch synthesis process is the best-known synthesis process and was used on a large scale in Germany during World War II. Other processes include the Bergius process, the Mobil process and the Karrick process. An intermediate step in the production of synthetic fuel is often syngas, a stoichiometric mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which is sometimes directly used as an industrial fuel.

The process of producing synfuels is often referred to as Coal-To-Liquids (CTL), Gas-To-Liquids (GTL) or Biomass-To-Liquids (BTL), depending on the initial feedstock. Many current projects are also now combining coal and biomass feedstocks, creating hybrid synthetic fuels loosely categorized as Coal and Biomass To Liquids (CBTL). Synthetic crude may also be created by upgrading bitumen (a tar like substance found in tar sands), or synthesizing liquid hydrocarbons from oil shale and synthesis gas: a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.



The leading company in the commercialization of synthetic fuel is Sasol, a company based in South Africa. Sasol currently operates the world's only commercial coal-to-liquids facility at Secunda, with a capacity of convert|150000|oilbbl/d|m3/d [] . Other companies that have developed coal- or gas-to-liquids processes (at the pilot plant or commercial stage) include Shell, Exxon, StatoilHydro, Rentech, and Syntroleum [] . Worldwide commercial gas-to-liquids plant capacity is convert|60000|oilbbl/d|m3/d [] , including plants in South Africa (Mossgas), Malaysia (Shell Bintulu) and New Zealand (Motor-fuel production at the New Zealand Synfuel site has been shut down since the mid nineties, although production of methanol for export continues [] . This site ran on the Mobil process converting gas to methanol and methanol to gasoline).

Commercialization in the United States

In the United States, a number of different synthetic fuels projects are moving forward.

American Clean Coal Fuels, in their [ Illinois Clean Fuels] project, is developing a 30,000 Barrel Per Day Biomass and Coal to Liquids + Carbon Capture and Sequestration project in Oakland Illinois. The project is expected to come online in 2013.

Baard Energy, in their [ Ohio River Clean Fuels] project, are developing a 53,000 BPD Coal and Biomass to Liquids project + Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

Rentech is developing a [ 29,600 barrel per day coal and biomass to liquids + Carbon Capture and Sequestration plant in Natchez Mississippi] . The first phase of the project is expected in 2011.

DKRW is developing a [ 15,000-20,000 Barrel Per Day coal to liquids + Carbon Capture and Sequestration plant in Medicine Bow Wyoming] . The project is expected to begin operation in 2013.

Numerous US companies (TECO, Progress Energy, DTE, Marriott) have also taken advantage of coal-based synfuel tax credits established in the 1970s, however many of the products qualifying for the subsidy (for example slurries or briquettes) are not true synthetic fuels since they are not the portable, convenient, end-user liquids that the credit was established for.POV-statement|date=December 2007

The coal industry currently uses the credit to increase profits on coal-burning powerplants by introducing a "pre-treatment" process that satisfies the technical requirements, then burns the result the same as it would burn coal. Sometimes the amount gained in the tax credit is a major factor in the economic operation of the plant. The synfuel tax credit has been used primarily in this manner since the cheap gas prices of the 1980s killed any major efforts to create a transportation fuel with the credit, and its continuation is seen as a major "pork project" win for coal industry lobbyists, to the tune of $9 billion per annum.POV-statement|date=December 2007 [ [,9171,1167738,00.html A Magic Way to Make Billions - TIME ] ] The total production of such synfuels in the US was an estimated 73 million tons in 2002.

The United States Department of Energy projects that domestic consumption of synthetic fuel made from coal and natural gas will rise to 3.7 million barrels per day in 2030 based on a price of $57 per barrel of high sulfur crude ( [ Annual Energy Outlook 2006, Table 14, pg52] ).


Synthetic fuels require a relatively high price of crude oil in order to be competitive with petroleum-based fuels without subsidies.Dubious|date=March 2008 However, they offer the potential to supplement or replace petroleum-based fuels if oil prices continue to rise. Several factors make synthetic fuels attractive relative to competing technologies such as biofuels, ethanol/methanol or hydrogen:

* The raw material (coal) is available in quantities sufficient to meet current demand for centuries
* It can produce gasoline, diesel or kerosene directly without the need for additional steps such as reforming or cracking
* There is no need to design new vehicles or convert current ones to use a different fuel
* There is no need to build a new distribution network

Environmental concerns

One issue that has yet to be addressed in the emerging discussion about large-scale development of synthetic fuels is the increase in primary energy use and carbon emissions inherent in conversion of gaseous and solid carbon sources to a usable liquid form, assuming the energy used to drive the process comes from burning coal or hydrocarbon fuels. Recent work by the United States' National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicates that full fuel cycle greenhouse gas emissions for coal-based synfuels are nearly twice as high as their petroleum-based equivalent. Emissions of other pollutants are vastly increased as well, although many of these emissions can be captured during production. Emerging Carbon sequestration technologies have been suggested as a future mitigation strategy for greenhouse gas emissions. Fact|date=January 2008

Because Eastman's coal gasification facility has been commercially producing synthesis gas from Eastern high-sulfur bituminous coal since 1983, the Kingsport demonstration provides an opportunity to show, at full commercial scale, the advantages of liquid phase reactors as a cost-effective alternative to conventional fixed-bed methanol production systems.

The demonstration technology's novel reactor combines the reaction and heat-removal systems, distinguishing the LPMEOHTM process from other commercial methanol-production processes which send synthesis gas through a fixed bed of dry catalyst particles. In contrast to fixed beds, the liquid phase consists of a micrometre-size, temperature-sensitive methanol catalyst suspended in an inert mineral oil. The liquid phase reactor provides a significant improvement, particularly for methanol catalysts where strict temperature control is needed. Because of this superior heat management capability, the LPMEOHTM reaction vessel can directly handle the carbon monoxide-rich synthesis gas typically produced in modern gasifiers.

Liquid phase reactor technology can be used to lower costs for other indirect liquefaction applications to produce no-sulfur aromatic-free, high-octane diesel transportation fuels such as Fischer-Tropsch diesel or dimethyl ether.

Biomass gasification technology may offer a less carbon-intensive alternative. Biomass-powered synthetic fuel plants may become technologically and economically-convincing energy possibilities for a carbon-neutral economy [ [ "Carbon cycle management with increased photo-synthesis and long-term sinks" (2007) Royal Society of New Zealand] ] in the future, although there are currently problems in scaling up the process to commercial volumes [ [ Transport biofuels, UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, (August 2007) Number 293] ]

Hybrid hydrogen-carbon processes have also been proposed recently [cite journal | author =Agrawal R, Singh NR, Ribeiro FH, Delgass WN | title = Sustainable fuel for the transportation sector | year = 2007 | journal = PNAS | volume = 104 | issue = 12 | pages = 4828-4833 | doi = 10.1073/pnas.0609921104] as another closed-carbon cycle alternative, combining 'clean' electricity, recycled CO, H2 and captured CO2 with biomass as inputs as a way of reducing the biomass needed.

ee also

* Coal liquefication
* Fischer-Tropsch process
* Bergius process
* Karrick process
* Syngas
* Gasification
* Methanol to gasoline
* Biofuel
* Butanol fuel
* Gas to liquids
* Synthetic oil
* Synthetic Fuels Corporation
* Synthetic Liquid Fuels Program
* Cracking
* Oil shale extraction
* Pyrolysis
* Methanol economy


* Synfuel Plants Expand In W. Va (Coal Age, Feb 1, 2002)

External links

* [ Synthetic Methanol as a Sustainable Transport Fuel (IMechE webcast)]
* [ Alliance for Synthetic Fuels in Europe]
* [ DOE EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2006, section on synthetic fuels]
* [ Gas to liquids technology worldwide, ACTED Consultants]
* [ Synfuel Producers Hit Paydirt!] (NCPA Policy Digest) - an analysis of synfuel subsidies in the USA
* [ US DoD launches quest for energy self-sufficiency] Jane's Defence Weekly, 25 September 2006
* [ Alberta Oil Sands Discovery Centre]
* [ Bitumen and Synthetic Crude Oil]
* [ World CTL 2008 Conference] 3 & 4 April, 2008 - Paris
* [ Synthetic Fuel Concept to Steal CO2 From Air]
* [ EU project to convert CO2 to liquid fuels]

* [ Fourth generation synthetic fuels using synthetic life. Lecture by Craig Venter]

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