Could Liquid Coal Fuel be the Future?
Coal is the energy source we all love and hate at the same time. On the one hand, there's about a 600-year supply of it at current consumption rates, it produces a lot of very cheap energy and is responsible for Utah having some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation. On the other hand, coal produces a lot of pollution (CO2 and trace heavy metals) and isn't politically popular. In that same vein, we have a love-hate relationship with the idea of using liquefied coal to power plane, trains and automobiles.
Liquefied coal is not a new concept. Germany used the fuel during WWI and WWII and South Africa continues to do so. The idea is to use heat and pressure in conjunction with a catalyst to turn coal into a liquid state usable in internal combustion engines. Unfortunately, this process has historically produced a lot of carbon dioxide and ends up carrying its pollution baggage with it.
This might be changing. Companies like Headwaters Inc. (disclosure: my wife works for them) and Silverado Green Fuel are working on ways to turn coal into liquid fuel without the environmental impacts normally associated with the process. The generated carbon dioxide is either buried underground or reused for other refining activities. Aside from environmental concerns is the push to use domestic energy sources as much as possible. While we don't have enough oil to satisfy our needs, we have more than enough coal to last for centuries and that's just what we know about.
The Senate recently considered both requiring the use of liquid coal for a portion of our energy needs and providing loans to build the facilities. Environmental activists ended up sinking the bill, thus pitting themselves against those who want to get us energy-independent. That leaves us in the quandary we've always been in: we can either have squeeky clean and expensive energy sources or we can have cleaner but still polluting ones.
Most of us aren't willing to open up our pocketbooks and double or triple our energy costs just yet. I think liquid coal fuel strikes a great balance between tapping an abundant resource we already have and making baby steps towards energy independence and cleaner sources of fuel and keeping costs somewhat reasonable. Goodness knows that corn isn't going to fit the bill.