Technology to turn coal to liquid has been known for more than 100 years. Coal to liquids, or CTL, has been utilized for fuel production throughout history.
A well-known CTL process is Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, developed by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in 1920’s Germany. Fischer-Tropsch is an indirect process, which first turns coal into a synthetic gas which must be further refined to produce liquid fuels. The coal must first be burned to generate the gas.
Around the same time, another German scientist, Friedrich Bergius, imagined a more direct process that could turn coal directly into liquid fuels that would be more efficient and cleaner than burning coal. He invented a process to mix dry coal with oil. In the presence of a catalyst, the mixture is exposed to heat and pressure. Hydrogen is added, creating synthetic fuel and other liquids. By 1944, half of Germany’s fuel was being produced from coal.
Inspired by this, scientists in the United States continued work to improve CTL technology throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One group of researchers founded a small business in New Jersey, called Hydrocarbon Research Inc. (HRI). They invented and patented a new system that made the Bergius invention even more versatile and more efficient.
HRI began operation of a small-scale test facility near Trenton, New Jersey, in the 1950’s. They found that in the very same test unit they could refine either crude oil (called H-Oil®) or liquefy coal (called H-Coal®) into gasoline and diesel. The H-Coal process was scaled up from the small test facility in New Jersey to a large demonstration plant in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. That plant operated from 1980 to 1983, proving that H-Coal technology was a clean and efficient way of turning coal into high-quality fuels on a large scale.
In 2002, China began development of a massive coal to liquids synthetic fuel plant in Inner Mongolia to take advantage of the country’s huge coal reserves. Chinese officials turned to American coal technology developed by the scientists and engineers at HRI in planning the large Shenhua plant. The Shenhua CTL plant became operational in 2008, reportedly producing 20,000 barrels a day of diesel oil, liquefied petroleum gas and naphtha. The plant relies on the H-Coal process developments started in the 1950s, to mix pulverized coal with recycled liquids, hydrogen and a catalyst in a bubbling reactor to create synthetic fuels and other liquids.
Now, the H-Coal process is coming home, bringing it full circle. The Domestic Synthetic Fuels plant to be built near Point Pleasant in Mason County, West Virginia (just 50 miles from H-Coal in Catlettsburg), will utilize H-Coal technology to turn locally abundant coal and natural gas into high-quality fuels and other products, putting West Virginians to work and helping the local and regional economies.