It is a well-known fact that the global energy economy relies and will continue to rely for many years to come on energy generated by burning fossil fuels, such as natural gas, crude oil derivatives and coal. It is also common knowledge that combustion of large quantities of these energy sources leads to air pollution and other environmental problems that affect the lives of everyone and everything on planet Earth.
Burning coal results in more pollution than that caused by the combustion of either oil or gas. Coal was the first fossil fuel to be used by people as an energy source, and in 19th to 20th centuries it could have vied for the title of “Man’s key fuel”. Nowadays, governments of industrially developed countries have vouched to lower the use of coal in their energy sectors. However, it is cheaper than either oil or natural gas, and does not require special means of transportation such as pipelines or tankers. This is the reason why rich nations, such as the United States, China, Japan and member states of the European Union, are not yet ready to stop burning coal completely. And the issue of reducing its usage is not even under discussion in fairly poor countries with rapidly developing industrial sectors (as, for instance, ASEAN members). Hence, the global coal industry, which not long ago was expected to decline rapidly, will continue to flourish for decades to come. In addition, the depletion of global oil and gas reserves ought to be taken into account in this discussion. According to some estimates, proved reserves of both of these fuels will last for the next 50-100 years, and afterwards, people will have to switch to other energy sources. And they may include “good old” coal, which could suffice for 200 to 300 years.
However, another issue with coal, besides greater pollution, is that it cannot be used in all of the modern energy sectors. Enormous manufacturing plants and thermal power stations, which supply electricity to entire cities, are powered by coal. And back in the day, means of transport, such as locomotives, steamships, etc, also operated on coal. Their steam engines were enormous, because they needed to have an external furnace, a water tank and a system for converting the thermal energy of steam into mechanical energy. There were also energy losses during the combustion process, and while steam was produced from water and then transferred to the motor unit. Thus, these engines were not very powerful by modern standards. However, the fact that these engines operated on affordable coal was a real advantage. And the use of such a fuel was made possible by these engines’ external furnaces.
In the 20th century, internal combustion engines (ICEs) replaced almost all of the steam engines. Fuel is burned in a combustion chamber inside the former, as their name suggests. In ICEs, there is no need for additional components to transfer heat from combustion gases to water, and energy losses are reduced. ICEs turned out to be more powerful than steam engines too, and their smaller size helped them fit under the hood of a modern vehicle. Contemporary means of transportation have been largely shaped by internal combustion engines.
However, ICEs usually operate on liquid fuel or gas, and replacing either with solids, even in powder form, and ensuring their seamless use is difficult. Pipes used for problem-free transfer of liquids would become clogged if solid fuel was to be used instead. In addition, if hard particles were to reach the engine, they could result in its damage, breakage or premature deterioration.
Almost all of the modern means of transportation, such as light and heavy motor vehicles, airplanes, helicopters, ships, tanks, etc., are equipped with ICEs and operate on either liquid fuel derived from crude oil (petrol, kerosene and diesel fuel) or gaseous fuel also obtained from petroleum or natural gas (propane).
Internal combustion engines powered by solid powder-like fuel types are also being developed, but they are not widely used, possibly because of their complexity and unreliable nature.
What is more, liquid crude oil fractions and gas have higher calorific values and produce much more energy than coal does, and engines operating on the former fuels have much more power too.
Still, vehicles powered on coal, turf and even firewood do exist. We are referring here to the so-called “producer gas” vehicles that are equipped with special furnaces used for burning solid fuel and generating gas, which is then transferred to an ICE. So in reality, they also operate on gaseous fuel.
Such vehicles do not compare favorably with cars that are powered by normal energy sources, as the equipment for generating combustion gases from solid fuel requires a lot of room. They are also not particularly fast and are more of a fire hazard than regular automobiles.
“Producer gas” vehicles are usually used when there are shortages of oil and gas. For instance, in Europe and the USSR such vehicles were widely used during the Second World War, and there are quite a few of them in North Korea, against which, as we know, international sanctions have been imposed. As a result the DPRK is unable to purchase oil and gas in quantities sufficient for its needs.
We can thus conclude that our modern civilization needs all three key fossil fuels, i.e. coal, crude oil and natural gas. Still, the latter energy sources are preferable in the transportation sector, but they are also the ones that could be depleted by the end of the 21st century.
Perhaps, the West’s persistent push to make people switch to electric cars is part of preparations for a life without oil and gas. However, it is somewhat doubtful that such a step would be truly beneficial for our environment. After all, electricity for such cars is generated by regular power plants, including those powered by ecologically unfriendly fuel, such as coal. In addition, a lot of energy is lost before it reaches an electric-vehicle battery, which means that coal is burned for no good reason resulting in environmental pollution. Still, electric cars are a real alternative to automobiles powered by oil and gas.
There is also yet another solution: producing synthetic fuel with similar characteristics to that of petroleum products and gas. There are different means of doing so. One of the most promising methods is manufacturing synthetic liquid fuel from coal, which has similar chemical properties to oil.
It is not a novel idea. We have long known about various methods for converting coal to a liquid fuel. The main process used nowadays is based on that developed by German scientists Franz Joseph Emil Fischer and Hans Tropsch at the beginning of 20th century. Still, all the known means of liquifying coal are equally problematic because they are unaffordable. Such processes are usually used during fuel crises when getting hold of necessary fuel becomes more important than economic viability. For instance, liquid fuel was actively synthesized from coal in Europe during World War II. But in times of peace, governments of nations that do not have their own fossil fuel deposits often prefer to purchase energy sources from abroad rather than invest money in costly manufacturing processes and equipment, which constantly need new investments.
The largest of existing plants for converting coal into liquid fuel began operations in 2016, in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (NHAR) of the PRC. The former Celestial Empire invested almost $8 billion into the facility. It is still unclear how soon the nation will be able to recoup its costs, however, China has vast financial resources and also really needs liquid fuel. What is more, the country has made a serious commitment to reducing its reliance on coal, and it is also in the midst of a major confrontation with the West, which could threaten its oil supplies from the Middle East. Hence, in all likelihood, the construction of the Ningxia plant was yet another example of a country sacrificing monetary gain for a fuel supply.
Nevertheless, the idea of producing synthetic oil on an industrial scale is quite an attractive one. The key task is to find a cheap means of doing so.
In February 2018, there were media reports about a Russian invention described as equipment for producing synthetic liquid fuel oil from coal using electro-cavitation to process coal-water mixtures. The purpose of this mini-plant is to produce cheap synthetic fuel oil from brown coal (which is more suitable and also cheaper than hard coal in this case), water and waste products from processing crude oil. Petrol, mazut and diesel fuel can all be obtained from this synthetic fuel.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of news is that, according to the developers of the process, production costs are so cheap that they are even (significantly) lower than those associated with refining crude oil to obtain fuel for vehicles.
Several Russian companies worked on this initiative: South Ural Technology Association, Saint-Petersburg Electrotechnical Company (SPbEC) and a firm based in Novokuznetsk, Kvant (Quantum).
The inventors of the apparatus have said that the necessary equipment is suitable for mainstream use in small and medium-sized businesses because it is not expensive and soon pays for itself. The technology is expected to be introduced into the agricultural and housing and utility sectors. It could also be of use in the Far North, where fuel delivery is problematic in some regions.
It was also reported that the first apparatus had already been exported. The equipment with a 15-ton capacity, ordered by North Korea, had already been manufactured and delivered to a glass factory in the city of Nampo (in the DPRK) by the time the article came out.
The developers also said that they were already in the process of building a mini-plant, with the capacity of producing 100 tons of fuel a day, for Russia’s internal needs.
In October 2018, it was also reported that South Africa expressed its interest in buying the Russian equipment, because the nation wishes to become less dependent on oil supplies from abroad.
In 2020, the developers of the apparatus are planning on presenting their creation at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS summits in the hopes of attracting new foreign partners.
The news about the existence of the mini-plant that produces liquid fuel from coal in an economically viable manner has not garnered much attention from the media. But this seemingly insignificant event could be the start of big changes in the rest of the world. If people can adapt the process to an industrial scale, the effect, on a regional level, will be that nations lacking in energy sources as, for instance, North Korea, could become more energy independent, and thus it will become more difficult to pressure them with economic sanctions. And countries that mine and export a lot of coal, such as the Russian Federation, may be able to manufacture a product with added value from coal, thereby substantially increasing their earnings.
Globally, the mass production of synthetic liquid fuel could encourage the active use of coal in the energy sector, thus helping keep the energy crisis at bay, which may arise if oil and gas reserves finish. In addition, coal would not be burned in its naturally occurring form, which will substantially reduce its impact on our environment.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.