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MIT study concludes that absent climate policy, coal-to-liquids could account for around a third of global liquid fuels by 2050

The top graph depicts CTL in a no policy scenario; the bottom graph, for CTL in a world climate policy scenario. Credit: Chen et al., 2011 Click to enlarge.

A new assessment of the viability of coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology by researchers from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change (JPSPGC) found that without climate policy, CTL has the potential to account for around a third of global liquid fuels by 2050.

However, the viability of CTL becomes quite limited in regions with climate policy due to the high conversion cost and huge carbon footprint. Although adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) could reduce CO2 emissions, the additional cost from implementing CCS makes CTL less attractive, the report finds.

Converting coal into liquid fuels is known to be more costly than current energy technologies, both in terms of production costs and the amount of greenhouse gases the process emits. Production of CTL has a large carbon footprint, releasing more than twice the lifecycle greenhouse gases of conventional petroleum fuels. However, with the rise in energy prices that began in 2008 and concerns over energy security, there is renewed interest in the conversion technology, the report notes.

To assess the prospects for CTL—specifically, polygeneration technology that produces liquid fuels, chemicals, and electricity by coal gasification and the Fischer-Tropsch process—the MIT team incorporated the engineering data for CTL from the US Department of Energy (DOE) into the MIT Emissions Prediction and Policy Analysis (EPPA) model, a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model of the global economy.

They modeled different scenarios, varying the stringency of future carbon policies, the availability of biofuels and the ability to trade carbon allowances on an international market. Researchers also examined whether CTL-conversion plants would use carbon capture and storage technology, which would lower greenhouse gas emissions but create an added cost.

Based on DOE’s plant design that focuses mainly on liquid fuels production, the study found that, without climate policy, CTL might become economical as early as 2015 in coal-abundant countries like the United States and China. In other regions, CTL could become economical by 2020 or 2025. Carbon capture and storage technologies would not be used, as they would raise costs. In this scenario, CTL has the potential to account for about a third of the global liquid-fuel supply by 2050; at that level it would supply about 4.6% of global electricity demand.

However, the viability of CTL would be highly limited in regions that adopt climate policies, especially if low-carbon biofuels are available. Under scenarios that include stringent future climate policies, the high costs associated with a large carbon footprint would diminish CTL prospects, even with carbon capture and storage technologies. CTL conversion may only be viable in countries with less stringent climate policies or where low-carbon fuel alternatives are not available.

The main contribution of our research is to provide a comprehensive and consistent approach to investigate the future of CTL conversion, a strategy which has been discussed intensively especially in coal-abundant countries. In addition, the multi-input and multi-output structure we develop to represent CTL conversion could also be applied to other polygeneration approaches that produce different fixed or variable output shares or that relied on other feedstocks. Thus, future research may explore coal-biomass-to-liquid (CBTL) or biomass-to-liquid (BTL) processes which, while probably having higher conversion costs, could have significant benefit in terms of reduced CO2 emissions.

—Chen et al.




Right on most points Roger, with the exception of the economy. It is fine and has been - even with Big Oil. But we are going to move beyond wind and solar simply because we can and the energy portfolio will now include new physics. Expect to see the introduction of exc ess heat catalytic processes like those of Italian Rossi's e-Cat on a global scale.

These systems will augment wind and solar expansion and land use abuses. We make little progress by adopting centralized intermittent energy resources that scar our landscapes and require expensive distant transmission.

The operative direction is LOCAL production of energy which is efficient, economical, non-invasive, and clean. These include some local NG converted power plants, wind farms, rooftop solar AND residential CHP. They also include new catalytic processes producing excess heat. ALL these systems and the new physics of some - will be used to end addiction to foreign oil and outdated centralized power distribution.

The watchphrase is from the green movement: Think global, act local. Making our own distributed energy is an excellent local act.


Someone getting 20 MPG can't afford $4/gallon gas for long.

Hmmmm. My car averages 30 mpg (US) and I can afford to pay $9 per US gallon here in the UK. We paid $4 per gallon 15 years ago!!!

Don't underestimate how resilient people are to price changes.

In the UK, if it's not the price of oil forcing fuel prices up, it's our greedy government hiking up fuel duty.

Stan Peterson

Oil is a bio product produced by the aneorobic bacteria that created our atmosphere, and then had to hide where killing free Oxygen emitted by the Cambrian flora would not harm them.

Certainly it take millions of years to produce all the pools of liquid hydrocarbons, but they do produce some gargantuan quantity every year. Most oil pools date to some time in the past 500 million years; the era of the Earth that included life.

The amount produced is still unknown.


I am not discussing the abiotic theories of Dr. Gold, which may or may not be true. Our space explorations have verified vast quantities of hydrocarbons on some gas giant moons, and those are certainly abiotic in origin. Lots of abiotic oil if extruded over the Earth's 4500 million years, has also been consumed by the movement of tectonic plates and subduction. Carbon and hydrogen are very common elements and a substantial portion of the World's elements.

The process I am referring to is what the recently dicovered vast quantities of bacteria living under the seafloor do. This was only discovered in mid-decade, so knowledge is still partial and somewhat fragmentary, but stagering none the less. No one expected anywhere near that volume of life that has been estimated to be about 1/3 of all the world's life by weight.

The only way that energy may be utilized more efficiently is through the use of more efficient Energy processes. The Laws of Tehrmodynamics stipulate the thermal efficiency is a function of the differnce in Temperatures over the thermal energy cycle.

So Solar and Wind which have diffuse energy levels, and can never be made as efficient, as ones we have already created.

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