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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.
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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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.

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
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).

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
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.

"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher

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