Friday, August 03, 2007

Gas from Coal: A Clever, but Bad Idea

Sure, you can do it, and a group of lawmakers (with the blessing of the Bush Administration) were trying to push a bill through the Senate to subsidize the conversion of coal into liquid fuel. But the effort failed, and for good reason.

According to
an op-ed at Rochester Post-Bulletin, which calls on a variety of sources from the NY Times to MIT, the coal-to-liquid process is both dirty and expensive.

If your goal is energy independence, the coal-to-liquid thing is great. In
an NPR report on this matter, one expert referred to the US as the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” We got lots of it, so if we started turning coal into gasoline, we probably wouldn’t rely so much on foreign sources. But again, the process of transforming coal-to-liquid isn’t cheap.

First of all, it costs four times as much to build a coal-to-liquid plant as it does to build a petrol refinery. Also, it takes a lot of water to create a gallon of fuel from coal. According to the NPR report, a single gallon of fuel from coal takes 15 gallons of water to create. To contextualize that, consider that a plant making 22,000 barrels of fuel from coal per day would consume as much water as a city with 100,000 people.

Money and water aside, making liquid fuel from coal is dirty. According to a NY Times editorial, cited by the Post-Bulletin piece, “between the production process and burning it in cars, coal-to-liquid fuel produces more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline and nearly twice the emissions of ordinary diesel.”

So while coal-to-liquid is good for energy independence, it’s a drag for the environment. I suppose we need to decide which is more important. Once again, the Senate halted a bill to encourage this practice, so it seems as though the environment is winning the battle… for now.

For the record, a couple of other countries have played the coal-to-liquid card: Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa. And… well… I’ll leave it at that.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.