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DARPA Soliciting Research Proposals for Zero CO2, Lower-Water CTL Technologies

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) soliciting research proposals for new technologies for the conversion of coal to liquid (CTL) hydrocarbon fuels that are more environmentally friendly and cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels. Specifically, DARPA is looking for processes that generate no CO2 and that consume about half the water of current technology.

The Coal to Liquids (CTL) program is designed to explore aggressive, short-term, feasibility demonstrations of innovative concepts that would enable the DoD to effectively and economically exploit US coal reserves as part of an overall strategy to ensure a secure future energy supply for the military without the environmental or economic downsides of current direct or indirect coal liquefaction technologies.

Unfortunately, the two conventional methods for extracting hydrocarbon fuels from coal (indirect and direct liquefaction) are extremely expensive to implement, consume large amounts of water, and produce unacceptable amounts of atmospheric CO2 and other pollutants. For this reason DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office is interested in exploring alternative coal to liquid fuel conversion technologies that offer environmentally friendly, yet efficient, methods for extracting useful energy from our Nation’s coal resources.


The US Department of Defense (DoD) currently uses on average more than 300,000 barrels (12.6 million gallons US, 47.7 million liters) of petroleum-based liquid fuels per day. Given the estimated US coal reserves of 275 billion tons, existing CTL technologies could meet the DoD need for liquid fuels “for several thousand years”, according to DARPA.

However, the agency notes, there are economic and environmental challenges that prevent the implementation of existing CTL technologies for producing JP-8 aviation fuel. The current cost of implementing a 100,000 bpd CTL facility would be well over $6 billion, according to DARPA. In addition, the life cycle environmental cost of fuels derived from coal results in a net increase of 80% or more in terms of carbon dioxide emissions as compared to the use of petroleum-based fuels.

While the use of proposed carbon capture technologies might mitigate the increased carbon dioxide emissions, the scalability, reliability, and economics of these technologies are still very much unknown. Finally, existing CTL technologies rely on large amounts of water as a source of hydrogen. This is due to the fact that coal, while high in carbon content, is comprised of only 5% hydrogen. In contrast, JP-8 has closer to 15 % hydrogen composition by weight. Water is a natural source for hydrogen (11% hydrogen by weight); however the water based reactions for converting coal to liquid fuels (water gas shift, steam reforming, etc.) result in the excess carbon and oxygen reacting to produce the additional unwanted carbon dioxide that is a major disadvantage of existing CTL technologies.

The development and demonstration of an innovative approach to CTL fuels that overcomes the economic and environmental challenges of existing approaches would be a revolutionary advance in the DoD’s ability to meet its requirements for a secure energy source.

—DARPA BAA-08-58

FT-based CTL (indirect liquefaction) produces about 1.3 kg of CO2 and 0.27 kg of oil, while consuming 1 kg of water, for every kilogram of coal processed. DARPA believes that innovative CTL concepts may exist that result in zero carbon dioxide emissions by avoiding the production of carbon dioxide, and that water consumption per kg of coal could be reduced to less than 0.5 kg.

Basic metrics for the solicited projects are:

  • Capital cost < $15,000 barrels per day (bpd) capacity

  • End user cost < $3 per gallon for JP-8 aviation fuel

  • Scalable to 100,000 bpd

  • Zero carbon dioxide emissions (up to the 100,000 bpd production levels)

  • < 235 kg of water consumed for every barrel of fuel produced (equivalent to < 0.5 kg of water for every 0.27 kg of fuel)

DARPA cautions that incremental improvements to existing Fischer-Tropsch or other existing CTL processes are not appropriate for consideration under this BAA.

The opportunity is limited to one Government fiscal year’s worth of funding. DARPA is anticipating multiple awards, but the combined maximum amount of all awards will not exceed $4.56 million.

Proposals for first selections are due 12 November 2008.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the US Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for DoD.



There's some interesting information in the actual proposal document:

"The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) currently uses on average over 300,000 barrels of petroleum based liquid fuels per day. In addition, the United States has over 275 billion tons of estimated coal reserves. Thus it is a reasonable expectation that, with existing CTL technologies, the DoD need for liquid fuels could be met using U.S. coal reserves for several thousand years."

"DARPA believes that innovative CTL concepts may exist that result in zero carbon dioxide emissions by avoiding the production of carbon dioxide."

"...a responsive proposal must address the following environmental impact metrics:
• zero carbon dioxide emissions (up to the 100,000 bpd production levels)
• < 235 kg of water consumed for every barrel of fuel produced (equivalent to < 0.5 kg of
water for every 0.27 kg of fuel)"

This is pretty ambitious...I've never heard of zero CO2 CTL.

Given the current public assumptions about need for liquid fuels and DoD's forward looking programs - why use old efficiencies when there are advanced energy systems far more efficient?


Converting all the Coal-carbon to liquid fuel, without producing CO2, and with using a minimal amount of water as a hydrogen source, will need an additional power source.

It is essential that the energy for splitting water does not come from carbon oxidation. Thus, firstly H2 is to be made out of H2O (without using coal), and then the H2 is added to the coal to produce hydrocarbons.
The only way to do that in the needed amounts is by nuclear water splitting.

Once that's done, the same technology can be used to convert any biomass (or waste) to liquid fuels as well, with a maximal efficiency, and minimal cost.
A 4th generation nuclear plant could do the job while consuming old nuclear waste.

This may well be the fastest and most secure way to solve many military, economical and ecological problems.


you need about 17MJ to split 1 kg of H2O,
They need 2,350,000 kg of water/d to produce 100,000 bpd.
So they need 407,333,333 MJ/day or 4714 MJ/second or 4.7GW continuously.
With a 100% efficiency in water splitting, you need 4.7 gigawatts continuously !

That's a big nuke.


Not strictly zero CO2 even if they can capture the FT process emissions there is still the tailpipe or jet exhaust of the finished fuel. Some say there will be future wars over fuel but it could turn out there will fewer wars due to lack of fuel.


It is laudable that DARPA recognise that incremental and CCS FT process is unacceptable,

That brings us back exactly to square one as far as having an enormous resource that should never be used, even if some massive nuke can get us to the zero sum.

The emissions are exactly the same as long as the coal is out of the ground.

Surely we would be better off genetically engineering a goose to lay a solid carbonate egg.


Someone's gonna have to slap a bit of lipstick on that goose to get it through congress.

richard schumacher

DARPA should be working on using atmospheric CO2 as the feedstock. Then they can manufacture fuel anywhere there is adequate water and power, with no need to move coal around. As it is this smells like a jobs program; they might as well name it after West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.


Except that at 0.0385 percent of atmosphere a trace gas makes a poor feedstock.

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