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Jan 8, 2012
Coal-to-liquid fuel and SRI International's zero emissions manufacturing process
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It almost sounds too good to be true: Stanford Research International (SRI) claims to have developed a new method for creating liquid transportation fuels that will result in zero emissions during the manufacturing process.


Using a reactor, SRI International is injecting high-temperature methane natural gas into coal, which creates gasoline without producing carbon dioxide. SRI claims this method will reduce the cost of creating fuel as well.


Certainly, the idea of being able to create gasoline using this method – called coal-to-liquid, or CTL – is nothing new. However, SRI has tweaked the CTL process to make it more efficient, which could lead to it becoming a useful method for adding gasoline to the marketplace.


Ultimately, the best reason to give SRI’s method of CTL some attention is because of the potential ability to create a new domestic source of gasoline. Importing oil and using it to create gasoline has been the chief source of fuel for American drivers for decades, but the reliance of the United States on foreign oil carries a variety of problems.


Not only does a reliance on foreign oil create instability in the American petroleum and gasoline markets, which can lead to prices that fluctuate wildly, but it also drives up trading deficits. Political instability in the foreign markets causes problems as well. Such issues have led to companies looking for ways to reduce the need for importing oil.


Most of the attention lately has been focused on the vehicles themselves. Car manufacturers have developed vehicles with better fuel efficiency in the past. Now, much of the work focuses on creating fully electric cars, and nearly every major manufacturer has an electric vehicle.


Looking at alternative fuels has been another method of trying to reduce the dependence on foreign oil in the United States. Hydrogen fuel cells have shown some promise, although they’re still very much in the development stage. Some vehicles have been created that run completely on natural gas, although these options typically are limited.


Other options include the use of renewable fuel sources, such as plant material. Ethanol plants in the Midwest make use of corn to create fuel that can be used alone in specially constructed engines or as an additive in petroleum-based gasoline for traditional engines. Soybean oil can work with certain types of engines, too.


While many of these types of alternative fuels have shown promise, they also have some drawbacks, primarily related to expense. With so many of the alternative fuels technologies involving the use of engines that must be developed differently, it has inhibited the growth potential. The expense of creating new engines for vehicles that can use the alternative fuels is prohibitive.


That’s one of the reasons that the potential of the SRI technology is so appealing. It allows the current combustible engine design to remain in place, while also providing the ability to reduce foreign oil dependence. By developing new methods for creating gasoline, the SRI research also could buy time for alternative fuel technologies to mature and become more cost effective.


Obviously, the SRI design for using CTL doesn’t cut down on the release of carbon dioxide when the fuel is burned. The SRI method only works to reduce the production of carbon dioxide during the process of actually creating the fuel. So, for those looking at environmentally friendly vehicle options, the SRI fuel would not be particularly appealing.


With the large amounts of coal and natural gas that exist in the United States, however, finding a method of using CTL that is less expensive, relies on domestically produced materials and provides at least a few environment benefits could be a significant breakthrough. This research is still in the early phases, and it’s not known yet whether SRI’s design can be scaled to begin creating large amounts of fuel that could actually make an impact in the market. Still, the potential of this research remains appealing.


Sometimes, when things seem too good to be true, they are. More research into SRI’s method may prove that the new CTL process could be the exception to the saying, as it could be both good and true.

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