U.S. Economic Competitiveness

Ongoing concerns over unpredictable fuel costs and the United States' dependence on petroleum, a significant fraction of which consists of foreign oil imports, for supplying fuels and chemicals essential to the country's economic competitiveness, have prompted continued interest in alternatives which may improve the availability, sustainability, and costs of these commodities, particularly liquid transportation fuels. Petroleum costs have gone through large price fluctuations in recent years, notably having experienced a dramatic rise in cost from 2002-2008 and then 2010-2012. Natural gas also has experienced unpredictable and massive price swings in recent years, although it is currently inexpensive in the U.S. In contrast, coal has had a long history of relatively low and stable prices, which combined with its domestic abundance, represents a key resource to support the U.S. economy, resurgent industry, and U.S. exports.

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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration 2014

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has a history of research and development (R&D) in the area of liquid transportation fuel production from coal. This R&D has focused on increasing the efficiency of production and reducing costs of fuels synthesized from coal by multiple methods, including coal gasification to produce syngas which can be converted into a range of liquid fuels by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis or methanol synthesis followed by methanol to fuels synthesis routes, by direct coal liquefaction, and by coal pyrolysis, to name the major methods investigated. Many of the technologies developed for conversion of coal to transportation fuels can also be leveraged for the conversion of biomass-derived feedstocks, either independently or in conjunction with coal. This work continues in the slate of current projects being performed under the Coal & Coal-Biomass to Liquids program.

Despite being less expensive and more abundant than many other feedstocks being targeted for alternative fuel production, coal-based alternative fuels are not produced at commercial scale in the United States. Challenges to successful development of a coal-to-liquids (CTL) industry include high cost, and the reality that conventional CTL production methods exhibit a lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions profile approximately twice that of conventional petroleum fuels.  Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 effectively prohibits Federal agencies that purchase fuel (Department of Defense [DoD] being the largest) from contracting explicitly for the procurement of CTL fuels that have been produced without sufficiently curtailing lifecycle GHG emissions. 

Realizing that the potential exists to substantially lower lifecycle GHG emissions of CTL through advancing technology, DOE’s NETL, on behalf of the DoD (Air Force,) awarded coal-based research and development projects for advanced concepts and/or unit operations to reduce GHG emissions from the production of CTL fuels–particularly focused on the production of jet fuel. Awarded projects being carried out as part of the Coal and Coal-Biomass to Liquids program are:

Hybrid CTL Processes for Jet Fuel Production

Process Intensification for Coal Conversion for Jet Fuel Production

Commercialization Analysis for Construction of a Site Specific CTL Facility

A NETL Newsroom feature gives further perspective on the above discussion of Air Force-NETL coal to jet fuel projects and the subject of coal to liquid fuels.

Recently Completed Projects: