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.
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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