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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 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.

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