Turning coal into liquid fuel just took a big jump forward.
The process of cooking coal into liquid fuel, on the other hand, has already proven itself on a massive scale. Take coal, add some water, cook it, and you've got a liquid fuel for your car. The hydrogen in the water bonds to the carbon and voila: hydrocarbons, such as octane. It's the very fact that coal-to-liquids could work that make them such a scary idea for people devoted to fighting climate change.
The Nazis used the so-called Fisher-Tropsch process to provide up to half of their transportation fuel needs during World War II. Later, South Africa began a major coal-to-liquids program during the Apartheid era and now maintain the world's largest CTL industry in the world. The country's factories produce 160,000 barrels of fuel a day, a little more than all the residents and businesses in Utah use each day. The traditional process uses carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen as the ingredients in the molecular soup that gets turned into hydrocarbons. The Science process uses just CO2 and hydrogen. Glasser's new production method allows them to set a lower limit on the amount of energy that would be needed to transform solid coal into fuel.
The very best possible CTL process would require 350 megawatts of input to make 80,000 gallons of fuel; the current process uses more than 1,000 megawatts.
Even with the small efficiency gains, a large, domestic, carbon-intensive source of transportation fuel would throw a wrench into many plans to reduce emissions from vehicles. [More]
Even with high-muscle political backing, biofuels are eventually subject to the same competitive challenges as any other product in the marketplace. We're seeing now how sub-$50 oil clobbers the business model for corn ethanol, imagine if we were making gas from our own coal and couldn't use the national security argument.