Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Fishing for Fischer-Tropsch

Brian Schweitzer, the govonor of Montana, had an op-ed in the NY Times this past week advocating the use of synfuels to get us off our dependence on foreign oils. The chemistry behind turning coal into sythetic fuels like gasoline and diesel is called the Fischer-Tropsch process, after the German scientists who developed it. The F-T process is already well-established on a large scale, but is hampered by high capital costs, high operation and maintenance costs, and (until recently) the low cost of crude oil. The use of new high activity catalysts and improvements in the reaction kinetics have brought the price down, and now that crude has been $50-60+ per barrell, the argument for using America's vast coal reserves to create an additional source of gasoline is more appealing. The main problems are going to be the huge start-up costs, which will most likely require government subsidies, and the cost of the energy needed to run a synfuels plant. There will also be environmental-regulatory hurdles to overcome, but if oil prices remain high we could see synfuels coming online in the next decade.


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