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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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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.


“Then they pop up and say ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!' Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.” -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng referencing patent trolls














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