Monday, August 23, 2010

Lignite Reforming to Synthetic Crude

I was told of this by an associate who is drumming up interest in this technology.  There is two interesting points here.  The first of course is that a coal to fuel reforming process is been apparently successfully applied to lignite.  Obviously, if it is economic for lignite, all coal works also.

In the past, reforming protocols died on the vine simply because the cost per produced barrel was simply too high.  Millions would get spent to find out that it was simply out of reach.  It is also noted that this approach will also apply to reforming bitumen to form synthetic crude for the tarsands.

If we can process lignite into a pumpable fuel oil, then a lot of problems in coal disappear and we can tackle a whole range of lower grade coals that simply were too much trouble.  This technology promises to make the USA independent of imported oil outside of North America even if we do not exit the oil business for a while.

So we sure want to track this development since it helps out at the right time.

The second point is the sudden emergence of suitcase sixed reactors as a viable economic device.  This could be extremely important.  Historically, process engineering has relied on scale to achieve economic solutions.  The only catch is that chemical processes are often difficult to scale.  A bunch of very promising processes have never left the laboratory bench.  Suddenly we can plan to set up a plant with perhaps hundreds of suitcases instead of ten ton reaction chambers.  This is a great idea.  It acknowledges the harsh fact that certain processes do not scale in a linear manner at all.

An example is any reaction needing 600 atmospheres and 600 degrees which is the key reforming processing range.  Running it in a small pipe is a lot easier than a large pressure vessel whose failure mode promises to flatten the block.  You can see where I am going with this.  Today, automatic manufacturing is capable of putting together some pretty effective and complex ‘suitcases’.  Let us take advantage of that and get rid of the bigger is better mindset as this chap seems to have done.

Texas university has eureka moment for coal-to-gas
March 17, 2010

Canada has more energy in its "proven, recoverable" reserves of coal than it has in all of its oil, natural gas and oil sands combined: 10 billion tonnes. The world has 100 times more: one trillion tonnes. These reserves hold the energy equivalent of more than four trillion barrels of oil. They are scattered in 70 countries, mostly in relatively easy-to-mine locations and mostly in democratic countries.
The United States alone has 30 per cent of the world's reserves, and scientists in Texas say they have found a way to convert coal into gasoline at a cost of less than $30 (U.S.) a barrel - with zero release of pollutants.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) announced last month that they have developed a clean way to turn the cheapest kind of coal - lignite, common in Texas - into synthetic crude. "We go from that [lignite coal] to this really nice liquid," Brian Dennis, a member of the research team, said in describing the synthetic crude that can be refined into gasoline.

Assuming that these Texas folk are correct, this advance in technology could represent a historic moment in energy production - for Canada as well as for the United States. Canada has huge reserves of lignite coal in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan (which already gets 70 per cent of its electricity from this common coal) - not to mention in Nova Scotia.
The Texas researchers, who worked on the project for about 18 months, expect the cost to drop further. "We're improving the cost every day. We started off some time ago at an uneconomical $17,000 a barrel. Today, we're at ... $28.84 a barrel," Rick Billo, UTA's dean of engineering, told an Austin television reporter.
Texas lignite coal sells for $18 a tonne. The coal conversion technology uses one tonne of coal to produce 1.5 barrels of crude oil. One barrel of crude produces 42 U.S. gallons of gasoline. In other words, $18 worth of coal yields 63 gallons of gasoline: 0.28 cents a gallon.
In her report of the announcement, Dallas Morning News energy writer Elizabeth Souder said the U.S. government has approved construction of a small-scale microrefinery to test the UTA lab-based breakthrough. This prototype microrefinery should be in operation by year-end. "While the process doesn't create renewable fuel, it would create a domestic source for vehicle fuel and plastics," she reported.
People have been converting coal into gasoline for decades, of course, most notably in Nazi Germany. China launched the biggest coal-to-oil conversion plant in the world in 2008, in Inner Mongolia. Researchers have devised a number of ways to convert one fossil fuel into another fossil fuel - and into gasoline and diesel. But high costs have always prevented commercial exploitation of the various technologies and none of them eliminated the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
From the information released by UTA, we don't know precisely what innovation the scientists stumbled upon. The Austin TV reporter quoted Prof. Dennis as saying: "I had the idea for this while I was walking to my car. I ran back to the lab and I started drawing it out in my notebook."
As the scientists describe it, though, the technology uses "micro-fluidic reactors" that convert coal to synthetic crude at a fraction of the cost incurred with traditional conversion methods - and in a fraction of the time. The process first converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, then adds hydrogen from a renewable resource - such as from the water trapped inside lignite coal. Although this manufactured crude can be processed into gasoline by conventional refineries, it can apparently be processed more efficiently in "microrefineries" that cost one-fifth as much to build as conventional refineries.
Krishnan Rajeshwar, associate dean of UTA's College of Science, said the research team doubts that carbon sequestration - the process experimentally adopted by Canada to cleanse the Alberta oil sands - will ever work. "The idea that we can dispose of massive quantities of greenhouse gases by piping them underground ... is not very practical," he said in an article last year in UTA's Research magazine. Far better, he said, to capture CO{-2} right at power plants and convert it into crude on the spot.
Could the coal-to-oil technology put Canada's oil sands out of business? Not at all, in the opinion of Prof. Rajeshwar, who thinks that it would work equally well for oil sands and shale. "The same process will work with [unconventional oil], absolutely."
Assuming, arbitrarily for the moment, that Texas has struck oil in a huge way yet again, UTA's announcement shows that energy research has finally begun to move in the right direction - simultaneously toward clean coal and the commercial exploitation of carbon dioxide. The reasons are obvious. The world has enough coal reserves to last for centuries. And it has enough CO{-2} - used as an abundant new raw material - to last forever. Harnessed together, this cheap coal and this greenhouse gas could drive the global economy for hundreds of years.
The UTA energy lab, by the way, conducts parallel research into the further commercial uses of carbon dioxide - a free commodity that, along with Canada, countries around the world now propose to bury.

Researchers at UTA work on turning lignite into oil
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, June 15, 2008

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlingtonthink they can turn the state's 200-year reserves of lignite into a supply of heavy crude that will return Texas to its glory days as one of the oil capitals of the world.
As a result of their research, they say, the cost of heavy crude could eventually drop to around $30 a barrel. Heavy crude sells for slightly less than the light, sweet crude that is trading in the $130-a-barrel range.
Their research could also drastically reduce the cost of synthetic biodiesel fuels for diesel automobiles and trucks by reducing processing times and increasing yields with a product that's superior to diesel fuel made from petroleum.
The time frame? They say they could have biodiesel fuel available in quantity in about two years and liquid lignite converted into heavy crude in four or five years.
What makes this possible are micro-reactors invented by UTA engineering professor Dr. Brian Dennis that are being patented by the university.
"Dr. Dennis has shown that his micro-reactor creates a continuous production of biodiesel fuel," said Dr. Richard Billo, UTA's associate dean of engineering and research.
"It can reduce a 90-minute process to convert vegetable oil to biodiesel fuel to less than four minutes, and some oils to six seconds.
"Biodiesel is a clean-burning, efficient fuel that makes engines run better and last longer and is produced from inexpensive renewable resources readily available in the United States," he said.
Dr. Billo also noted that it's less toxic than table salt, reduces greenhouse gases and contributes 50 percent less than conventional diesel fuel to the ozone level.
"The use also reduces cancer risk from exhaust emissions by more than 90 percent while producing a substantial new market for America's farmers.
"The product is already widely used in Germany, where it is commonly available at the gas pump.
"By comparison, the United States produces a mere 30 million gallons a year but has a total diesel consumption of 36 billion gallons annually."
Dr. Dennis, whose research initially used cottonseed oil, got tremendous support from the Texas Department of Agriculture because the state has long been a leading cotton producer. Now he has extended his research to using animal tallow and the plentiful but inedible jathropha bean to produce biofuels.
"Because the mixing of the reactants takes place on a micro scale, the complete chemical reaction is much faster than in a traditional batch reactor," Dr. Billo explained.
"When many micro-reactors are used in parallel, one large operation can produce the same amount of biodiesel per year as a traditional batch production plant."

Size of a suitcase
Dr. Billo also pointed out that traditional plants costs tens of millions of dollars, but a micro-reactor plant would cost tens of thousands of dollars to process the same amount of biodiesel fuel. And each micro-reactor will be about the size of a small suitcase.
Now Dr. Dennis has added an emphasis on turning liquefied lignite into heavy crude oil that could be used by existing refineries to produce gasoline, motor oil and other petroleum products such as plastics.
The leap to lignite as a possible source for heavy crude, Dr. Billo said, was facilitated by research at West Virginia University and by his close relationship with the engineering faculty there.
After Dr. Billo heard that West Virginia had learned to liquefy bituminous, or soft, coal, he hopped a plane in February 2007 to see it firsthand.
Dr. Billo thought their methods would work just as well with lignite, and he was also spurred on, he says, by the impatience of U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, with the country's failure to confront the energy crisis.
Thus a partnership was formed between the two universities.

The positives

Dr. Bill Carroll, dean of the UTA Engineering School, said that lignite "is obtained by strip mining, which makes it more easily accessible."
And changing lignite into crude oil involves a chemical rather than a combustible reaction, which means that the process creates no air pollution.
"Once you demonstrate the lab models and the prototype models, the important modular approach to plant construction can expand rather easily," Dr. Carroll said.
The only hitch is that the number of refineries has not increased much in decades.
Actually, turning coal into oil dates back to its discovery by two Germans in the early 1920s. The process was used by Nazi Germany to fuel its war machine during World War II and later by the Union of South Africa when its apartheid policies sparked oil embargoes.
Even Exxon thought about entering the field in 1982 but ceased its activities when crude oil prices stabilized.
What goes around comes around.
UTA's micro-reactor project no longer needs luck, Dr. Billo says – it needs investors. Interested parties can reach him by calling the school at 817-272-2571.

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