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Princeton says energy-dense slew of renewable and fossil resources could solve the nation's fuel shortages

Princeton University is injecting itself into the corn ethanol debate, suggesting that the U.S. is moving in a very mistaken direction.  In a new study published as a whitepaper in the AIChE Journal, the team suggests that 130 synthetic fuel plants built across the country could replace "dirty" corn ethanol, cut fuel shortages, and cut carbon emissions by a whopping 50 percent.

I. Synthetic Fuel -- a Corn Ethanol Killer?

The proposed synthetic fuel would be a blend of liquefied coal, liquid natural gas, and non-food crop biofuels.  While that doesn't sound much like crude oil, the researchers say the synthetic fuel blend would actually be much closer chemically to traditional gas than corn ethanol, reducing the likelihood of ECU incompatibility in older vehicles leading to engine damage.

The downside is sticker shock; the team, led by Christodoulos Floudas, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton, suggests that the total cost of the plan might be $1.1T USD.  Thus the team suggests a slow rollout of synthetic fuels over the next 30 to 40 years.

Floudas Team
Prof. Floudas [center], along with graduate student Josephine Elia and Richard Baliban, who received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2012. [Image Source: Frank Wojciechowski]

Professor Floudas remarks, "The goal is to produce sufficient fuel and also to cut CO2 emissions, or the equivalent, by 50 percent.  The question was not only can it be done, but also can it be done in an economically attractive way. The answer is affirmative in both cases."

His team estimates that as the price of crude oil continues to creep up in upcoming decades, and as process improvements continue in producing synthetic fuels, that the alternative fuel slew will be cost competitive.

Chemical engineering graduate student Richard Baliban, a lead author on past papers for the team who graduated in 2012, remarks, "Even including the capital costs, synthetic fuels can still be profitable.  As long as crude oil is between $60 and $100 per barrel, these processes are competitive depending on the feedstock."

II. 1920s German High-Temperature Method Repurposed

The basis of the Princeton plan is to use a method dubbed the "Fischer-Tropsch process".  The technique was developed in the 1920s in Germany to turn coal into liquid fuel; it uses heat to liquefy the solid fossil fuel into a liquid resource.  

Complex chemical reactions catalyzed by inexpensive catalysts (nickel or iron) are employed at temperatures of around 1,000 to 1,300 deg. C to convert the solid fossil fuel into a liquid slew of hydrocarbon chains, plus useful leftovers, like waxes.
Fischer-Tropsch
An example Fischer-Tropsch reactor [Image Source: BioPact/Syntroleum]

The team added a new twist to the process, reinjecting the waste carbon dioxide, fueling more hydrocarbon formation, and cutting emissions.  Heavy metal and sulfur -- typical pollutants in crude oil -- are eliminated during the synthetic fuel production process, making for a cleaner burn.

The team estimates that currently the price of synthetic fuel would be around $83.58 USD in Kansas, one key state targeted for future production.

Prof. Floudas suggest the alternative fuel is the perfect trick for switching the U.S. of volatile, expensive foreign oil sources, commenting, "His is an opportunity to create a new economy.  The amount of petroleum the U.S. imports is very high. What is the price of that? What other resources to do we have? And what can we do about it?"

Sources: AIChE Journal, Princeton University



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Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/6/2012 7:25:13 PM , Rating: 0
Let's just use oil. It's plentiful. It's cheap. We already have in the infrastructure in place. We already have a plethora of engines that can utilize it.

That is, until it doesn't become economically viable to use it. Then we should switch.




RE: Let's just use oil
By ClownPuncher on 12/6/2012 8:07:02 PM , Rating: 5
Yep, but might as well get the research moving now.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/6/12, Rating: 0
RE: Let's just use oil
By MechanicalTechie on 12/6/2012 9:46:33 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
iPhone, Facebook, SpaceX, cure for cancer

I'm a little concerned with the order you put these in... personally would put it in reverse order... i hoping its your ordering has nothing to do with priority.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/6/2012 10:03:03 PM , Rating: 3
I'm a little concerned that what you got out of my post was some made-up issue and not the real one.


RE: Let's just use oil
By MechanicalTechie on 12/6/2012 10:14:57 PM , Rating: 2
Huh? made up issue?

So you want the US to be vulnerable to the whims of foregin oil producers for many more years to come.. well it doesn't effect me so i couldnt careless

I was merely intrigued to why you would put iPhone before cure for Cancer.. that was all :)


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/6/2012 11:29:44 PM , Rating: 3
The "made up" issue is that I somehow prioritized my examples, when no such evidence was provided that I did. I merely rattled off some ideas that came to mind. You read into it that I somehow valued one more than another.

The real issue being discussed was the forced reallocation of finite resources.

quote:
So you want the US to be vulnerable to the whims of foregin oil producers for many more years to come.. well it doesn't effect me so i couldnt careless.
Christ man. When did I say that? Not wanting to spend money on this synthetic fuel is not the same as me wanting the US to be vulnerable to the whims of foreign oil producers. And furthermore, if you want to reduce the dependence on foreign oil, there are numerous ways to do so which don't require $1.1T USD and 30-40 years.


RE: Let's just use oil
By MechanicalTechie on 12/7/2012 12:30:09 AM , Rating: 3
Fair enough.. but how do you expect to do this switch to an alternative fuel source? That kind of stuff needs investment and research.. i mean you could just sit on your hands and allow other countries to take the lead in synthetic/alternative fuels but is that really wise for the long term?

Currently the US has is balls nicely cupped by foreign oil producers.. keeping things statisquo is only prolonging its vulnerability. Does that help explain my meaning now?


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 10:54:57 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
but how do you expect to do this switch to an alternative fuel source
When oil isn't economically viable, and alternative will be a) brought to market, or b) will already be in the market but is now more competitive. It's not like we're going to wake up one morning and someone's going to say, "Gosh... we ran out of oil last night. Who'da thunk?" It will be a gradual progression. Things like the recent spikes in the price of crude are exactly the types of events that tip the scales for some people (as evidenced by the sales of more fuel efficient cars in that period).

quote:
Currently the US has is balls nicely cupped by foreign oil producers.. keeping things statisquo is only prolonging its vulnerability.
The US's dependence on foreign energy is wholeheartedly its own doing. We freely handed our collective balls to the foreign oil producers when we continually restricted oil development domestically.

If your concern is foreign oil, we can address that easily by loosening (removing?) restrictions on domestic oil exploration, collection, refinement, and distribution. If your concern is oil, foreign or domestic, I go back to my original point. There just isn't a compelling reason to switch yet. Surely there will be at some point, but it's not there now.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Jeffk464 on 12/7/2012 12:45:54 PM , Rating: 2
There is just no way to produce enough oil within our borders to supply our daily consumption. We absolutely have to import. We have also already tapped the cheap sources of oil in the US so what remains probably cost more than buying it on the global market.


RE: Let's just use oil
By twhittet on 12/7/2012 1:42:14 PM , Rating: 2
The US will be the biggest producer of oil in the next 5-8 years, and has a chance to be energy independent sometime after that. A lot of things can change from then until now though - and oil is still a global commodity.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Jeffk464 on 12/7/2012 5:07:22 PM , Rating: 2
We are or were, might be china now, also the largest consumer of oil in the world. Yes we produce a lot but we consume boat loads of the stuff.


RE: Let's just use oil
By knutjb on 12/7/2012 10:23:57 PM , Rating: 2
Time to pull your head out of the sand, we really do have enough oil. We didn't have the right technologies to cost effectively remove it until the last decade. Just allow for it to be accessed and the next biggest problem is the lack of refining capacity exacerbated by moronic "magic fuel blends" that at not allowed by law to be used in other regions.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Fallen Kell on 12/7/2012 2:32:24 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
And furthermore, if you want to reduce the dependence on foreign oil, there are numerous ways to do so which don't require $1.1T USD and 30-40 years.


Yeah, because we don't spend billions each yeah on subsidies for ethanol. Even using the current ethanol subsidy rate of ~$14billion and projecting that forward for the 30-40 years, you are still talking half a trillion and in the meantime you have driven food prices up with that method.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Mint on 12/6/2012 10:14:47 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Why? We could be using that money today for problems we're facing today.
There's more than enough money (and labor) looking for things to do. Banks have $2T in excess reserves, which has pretty much never happened. Deposits are around $10T, earning near zero interest. There's another $11T lent to the gov't at a very low rate because the owners of the debt can't average anything better elsewhere with any certainty.

All profitable problems - even the only slightly profitable ones - ARE being solved today. Synthetic fuels are a very good long term investment. It doesn't even matter if batteries start replacing oil at a fast rate, as the development of India, China, and the third world will have the planet use whatever is produced.

The science is very old. Now that we have cheap natural gas, all we need to find out is whether large scale production can bring the cost down enough. It's an expensive question to provably answer - Shell's Pearl GTL plant in Qatar cost $18B (initially estimated at $5B), and it took ages for it to get built. A couple more pilot plants need to be built and tested for a few years before we can expand this in the US.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/6/2012 11:40:26 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
All profitable problems - even the only slightly profitable ones - ARE being solved today.
Now that's quite a statement. One that you can't even possibly begin to make credibly unless you have a crystal ball.
quote:
Synthetic fuels are a very good long term investment.
If this statement and the one before it are true, then this issue will sort itself out. Because it's a very good long term investment, those hoards of cash will be spent bringing this technology to fruition. Princeton should spend its coveted research dollars elsewhere.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Mint on 12/7/2012 3:46:00 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Now that's quite a statement. One that you can't even possibly begin to make credibly unless you have a crystal ball.
Fine, all the expected profitable problems. I just gave you a bunch of proof. You can't have excess reserves and $10T in deposits if there were any selfish investments left (i.e. those that the investor could benefit enough from).

One of the reasons that public research yields commercially viable technologies before companies do is that they won't get all of its benefits for themselves. You need peer-review, sharing of data, collaboration, etc to get the best results, but then the information becomes public. If it was funded by one company, others get most of that info for free, so only the low hanging fruit gets researched by companies.

Risky stuff like this rarely gets started. Even the Pearl GTL project I mentioned was a shared investment between Shell and the state-owned Qatar Petroleum. The payoff is potentially enormous ($4B+ of petroleum products per year), but was still risky enough to need gov't assistance.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 4:45:40 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
You can't have excess reserves and $10T in deposits if there were any selfish investments left (i.e. those that the investor could benefit enough from).
Sure you can. That tells us there's a barrier to entry. It tells us something is keeping the money on the sidelines. It does not tell us that profit can't be made. And it doesn't tell us what the barrier is.

It could be fear of regulatory changes. It could be a hope/expectation of future regulatory easing. It could be something totally irrationale and ridiculous. It's millions of reasons for millions of different people. Surely some of those include a belief that profitable problems aren't available, but you can't claim they all are.


RE: Let's just use oil
By twhittet on 12/7/2012 1:35:38 PM , Rating: 2
Why find a cure for cancer now when we could be using that money today for problems I'm facing today?

Why not just spend all of our money today while we're at it? Who cares about tomorrow.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 1:53:19 PM , Rating: 2
What??

Many people suffer from cancer today. I'm advocating not wasting money on an alternative-oil today when people are suffering from other things today.

I have absolutely no idea what you're advocating.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Rukkian on 12/7/2012 4:12:38 PM , Rating: 2
I guess where I find flaw in your argument, is it is kind of a chicken and egg thing. You say we should not invest until it financially makes sense, but it will never make financial success until the research is done. If we wait 30 years to begin the research, then it will be 30 years from then.

We can't just bury our heads in the sand and hope all the problems will go away. If you had, instead said we should wait until we have lower our deficit, and maybe dropped the debt, then maybe I would understand and partially agree.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 4:50:57 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
I guess where I find flaw in your argument, is it is kind of a chicken and egg thing. You say we should not invest until it financially makes sense, but it will never make financial success until the research is done. If we wait 30 years to begin the research, then it will be 30 years from then.
Again, I don't expect this to be a "flip of the switch" type transition. It's going to be gradual. Natural gas cheapens, so we burn more of that. Gas prices rise, so people buy more fuel efficient cars. Gas prices rise and companies invest in better/faster battery storage and charging technologies. An oil spill takes place, and people say "Gee, I'd rather spend my money on _______ instead. I think that's better." It's a gradual thing that will happen on its own, if left to. It's not like we suddenly one day stopped riding horses and all drove cars.

quote:
We can't just bury our heads in the sand and hope all the problems will go away. If you had, instead said we should wait until we have lower our deficit, and maybe dropped the debt, then maybe I would understand and partially agree.
I don't think the government has any place in our energy consumption. Period. How much or little debt we have is irrelevant to this issue. It's also important, don't get me wrong. But even if we had no debt, a roaring economy, and record gov't revenues I still wouldn't think we should be spending money on this technology.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Rukkian on 12/7/2012 4:58:17 PM , Rating: 2
Unless you are saying we should not be investing in any technology, then again you are calling for winners and losers sponsored by the government.

I think money should be spent on things like this. I am not just talking about green energy, but on technical research in numerous fields to keep us ahead of other nations, and not an also ran in the super powers.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 5:16:25 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Unless you are saying we should not be investing in any technology
I'm absolutely saying we shouldn't be investing in any technology. And by "we" I mean, us collectively, through governmental action. I would consider making an exception for a specific defensive military need. Maybe.
quote:
I think money should be spent on things like this.
And that's totally cool. Go for it! Donate your money to whatever causes you deem worthy. Donate to the National Science Foundation. Or to one of the national labs. Or buy the products of whatever company is innovating and you want to support. Or keep your money. Whatever!

The distinguishing factor for me is that you and I are able to make those decisions based on our own free will, and they're not made for us by 65M other people. Or probably more accurately, by the 537 federally elected representatives.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Jeffk464 on 12/7/2012 5:11:49 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Why not just spend all of our money today while we're at it? Who cares about tomorrow.


Lol, we are doing one better than that. We are spending tomorrow's money today.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 5:18:22 PM , Rating: 2
Ha! Well played.


RE: Let's just use oil
By knutjb on 12/7/2012 10:15:39 PM , Rating: 2
http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123032225 Didn't you notice the article as to how long this has been going on.


RE: Let's just use oil
By inperfectdarkness on 12/7/2012 2:31:21 AM , Rating: 2
That's funny. I thought it wasn't economically viable back in 1973. Then in 1979. Then again in 2001-now. Where exactly do you draw the line? $5/gal? $10/gal?

And beyond that, how exactly do you propose we roll-out the "alternative fuel" when we haven't developed the technology or infrastructure? Heck, we've been "exploring" alternative options since we had the rug pulled out from under us in 1973--and we still don't have anything widespread in place to rely upon. If anything that should speak to how much we need to start pushing NOW so that we have an alternative in place for when we need it.

I would prefer future-proofing our country through forward-thinking, rather than ignoring the 8000lbs (and growing) elephant in the room. Our politicians are adept enough at doing that.


RE: Let's just use oil
By othercents on 12/7/2012 8:36:19 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not certain switching from oil to coal is a good idea. Coal also has a finite supply. Wouldn't we be in the same situation by using coal as we are with oil? We can grow corn for fuel, so it is considered an infinite supply, disregardless of all the other issues (food costs, government subsidies, and car maintenance).

I think it would be best to just use the $1.1 trillion they are wanting to build a different infrastructure to support hydrogen, charge stations, or some other fuel structure. You could even give higher rebates to promote people purchasing plugin vehicles.


RE: Let's just use oil
By KITH on 12/7/2012 2:21:54 PM , Rating: 2
The US has huge amounts of coal and it is cheap.

There isn't an infinite supply of corn, it takes land and energy (petroleum based fertilizers, farm land, labor, transport) to produce. It also affects food pricing as everything is made with corn.

Hydrogen has not been borne out as a viable choice. Electrics/plugins have their own issue, our power grid cannot handle them at any large scale.

Disregardless is not a word.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 10:58:02 AM , Rating: 3
quote:
That's funny. I thought it wasn't economically viable back in 1973. Then in 1979. Then again in 2001-now. Where exactly do you draw the line? $5/gal? $10/gal?
I don't draw the line anywhere. The market draws the line wherever people stop buying it.

quote:
Our politicians are adept enough at doing that.
And I think this sums up the largest difference between our viewpoints. I don't think a politician can "future-proof our country" nor would I ever want them to try. Centrally planned economies don't work, and they result in someone being squashed in favor of the "right" choices. Worst of all, those "right" decisions are made for political gains, not economic gains.


RE: Let's just use oil
By mars2k on 12/7/2012 5:35:20 AM , Rating: 2
Read the article, its about not importing oil. This is being touted as a substitute for imported oil.
This is the same as oil it would use part of the existing infrastructure.
Oil is not so cheap and its less pletiful every day.
Our economy is too big we can't just switch on a dime at the exact moment there is no more oil.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 11:02:45 AM , Rating: 2
It's about spending oodles and oodles of money on creating something else that's chemically similar to oil. It is not the same as extracting crude from the ground.

Oil's "not so cheap" but currently better than the alternatives for most people.

And of course we can't, at the drop of a hat, convert everything in this country to use something other than oil. But then again, I never claimed we could, or that we'd need to. Are you envisioning the earth with a giant spigot for oil that some day will magically and instantly be shut off?


RE: Let's just use oil
By Jeffk464 on 12/7/2012 12:51:37 PM , Rating: 2
Synthetic fuel was originally designed to run in existing military equipment. If they could do it back in 1930's, I'm pretty sure we could do it now. You should be able to use the existing infrastructural.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 1:56:48 PM , Rating: 2
Are you arguing that the team in this study is wrong, and that it will not require as much as $1.1T USD and as long as 30-40 years?

Because if they're wrong, and it's easy to do, someone will bring it to market. That is, unless crude is still cheaper. Which would then support my original argument.


RE: Let's just use oil
By Jeffk464 on 12/7/2012 5:01:38 PM , Rating: 2
OPEC's normal tactic is to lower the price whenever something like this is on the horizon. Once they kill off any promising alternatives they jack up the price again. So crude oil will likely be cheaper when you try to bring it to market.


RE: Let's just use oil
By ebakke on 12/7/2012 5:27:48 PM , Rating: 2
Presumably you aren't the only human on the planet who's made this observation.

But all it really means is that Company X's calculation on whether or not this is worth it to them is based on a much lower price of Company Y's product. And if it were economically viable with crude at $30/barrel someone would bring it about. My original argument still holds : if it's viable, let's do it. If it's not, let's not.


"Nowadays you can buy a CPU cheaper than the CPU fan." -- Unnamed AMD executive














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