Features - November 2015

Aviation and Innovation: The New Heights of Coal-to-Liquid Fuel


After crude oil is removed from the ground, it is sent to a refinery where different parts of the crude oil are separated into useable petroleum products.

In 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly 27 percent of the petroleum consumed in the United States was imported from foreign countries. Though this is the lowest level since the 1980s, dependence on petroleum, especially from non-domestic sources, brings with it a bevy of concerns. Our Nation relies on petroleum for fuel and other chemicals essential to ensuring economic competitiveness and growth, yet fuel costs are often unpredictable when sourced from foreign markets.

Petroleum costs have a history of dramatic fluctuations, in recent years there have been two dramatic spikes in cost—2002-2008 and then 2010-2012.


Coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide.

Fortunately, there are efforts within the United States to develop methods of creating alternative fuel sources. Although natural gas is now inexpensive in the United States, it, too, has a history of unpredictable price swings. Coal, on the other hand, has a long history of reliably low and stable prices as well as being an abundant domestic resource. Consequently, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has focused on developing ways to transform coal into liquid fuel for use in transportation.

Synthetic fuel has a rich history. The first direct conversion of coal to liquid fuel was performed in Germany in the early 1900s. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the United States, in response to an internal energy crisis, began to research the creation of liquid fuels from coal. The Germans remained the world leaders in synthetic fuel creation even through World War II; their synthetic oil manufacturing plants with the primary source of their military’s supply of synthetic oil and high-grade aviation gasoline.

Since then, NETL (and its various predecessor agencies) have been committed to increasing the efficiency of U.S. fuels synthesized from coal, and reducing the cost of the technologies. Yet, despite coal being less expensive and more abundant than many other feedstocks being targeted for alternative fuel production, the United States still does not produce coal-based alternative fuels at commercial scale. This, however, may soon be changing.


The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 Eagle, an American twin-engine, all-weather tactical fighter, is among the most successful modern fighter planes.

This year, the U. S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) joined  together to focus on research geared to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop cost competitive coal-to-liquid gas options—specifically designed to supply the DOD with a source of stable, high-quality jet fuel production. The Coal and Coal-Biomass-to-Liquids program has awarded seven projects funds (at an estimated total cost of $25.7 million) to conduct research. Most of the funding comes from the U.S. Air Force ($17.3 million) while the remaining ($2.7 million) funding comes from DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy.

The seven projects are:

  • Altex Technologies Corporation’s Green-House-Gas-Reduced Coal-and-Biomass-to-Liquid-Based Jet Fuel (GHGR-CBTL) Process.  Altex and its partners will design and fabricate, test, and assess the performance of a process intended to produce greater than 1 barrel per day of synthetic JP-8 jet fuel. The system will use low-rank U.S. mined coal and the end product will be sent to third parties for testing compliance with military jet fuel specifications.
  • RTI International’s Breakthrough Hybrid CTL Process Integrating Advanced Technologies for Coal Gasification, Natural Gas Partial Oxidation, Warm Gas Cleanup, and Syngas-to-Jet Fuel. The Research Triangle Institute has a proposed hybrid coal-to-liquid process that integrates a number of emerging technologies anticipated to produce jet fuel that is cost competitive and leaves a low carbon footprint. The Advanced Compact Gasifier, Natural Gas Partial Oxidation, Warm Syngas Cleaning, and Syngas-to-Liquids technologies used in the process will use 51 percent U.S. mined coal and 49 percent natural gas.
  • Battelle’s Direct CTL for Jet Fuel Using Biomass-derived Solvents.  The Battelle Memorial Institute will demonstrate a hybrid, direct coal-to-liquids jet fuel process using novel biomass derived solvents as a hydrogen source. The project is expected to generate 500 gallons of JP-8 jet fuel for characterization for suitability without requiring the blending in petroleum-derived fuel.
  • Ceramatec’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions Research and Development Leading to Cost-Competitive Coal-to-Liquids (CTL) Based Jet Fuel Production. Ceramatec intends to demonstrate the production of jet fuel from a coal and glycerol or other biomass. The project will integrate several unique technologies to produce a product that may be directly blended with jet fuel from petroleum based sources. The cost is anticipated to be competitive with jet fuel from petroleum, and generate approximately 30 percent less Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions compared to conventional petroleum-based jet fuel.
  • Southern Research Institute’s Indirect Liquefaction of Coal-Biomass Mixtures for Production of Jet Fuel with High Productivity and Selectivity. Southern Research Institute will conduct a research and development project to provide innovative improvements to indirect coal liquefaction for conversion of coal or coal/biomass mixtures to jet fuel with high productivity and selectivity. The project focus is to reduce the cost, increase process efficiency, and improve the life-cycle for coal-to-liquids (CTL) production.
  • Lummus Technology’s Feasibility Study for Conversion of Wabash River Unit 1 – IGCC to a CTL Plant.  Lummus Technology Inc. intends to develop a feasibility study to determine the optimal configuration for a coal liquids plant producing jet fuel. The study focuses on retrofitting an existing gasification facility, which reduces technical risks and capital costs and leads to a higher probability of implementation and more competitive liquid fuel prices. The study will evaluate options for syngas purification and conversion to jet fuel and options for low carbon power production.
  • Princeton University’s Design/Cost Study and Commercialization Analysis for Synthetic Jet Fuel Production at a Mississippi site from Lignite and Woody Biomass with CO2 Capture and Storage via EOR. Princeton University will design and evaluate the cost-competitiveness of a commercial-scale integrated facility at a southern Mississippi site. The plant production capacity will likely be in the range of 5,000 to 15,000 barrels per day of liquid product. Additionally, byproduct CO2 will be captured at the plant, and it will be sold for use in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) to generate revenue.