Domestic Synthetic Fuel’s coal to liquids facility planned for Mason County, West Virginia may be the first of its kind in the United States, but similar facilities have been operating safely and successfully in other parts of the world for years.
Large-scale production of fuel from coal began in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s as the nation sought new ways to supply fuel. During World War II, synthetic fuels derived from coal made up 90 percent of Germany’s aviation fuel and half of the country’s overall fuel supply.
In 1950, the South African government set up the South African Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation (Sasol) to develop its own coal to liquids technology. Facing international trade embargoes due to Apartheid and lacking domestic oil reserves, South Africa turned to its large coal reserves as a means of producing fuel.
Today, Sasol is the largest coal to liquids producer in the world, supplying about 30 percent of South Africa’s domestic fuel demand.
In recent years, Sasol has concentrated on the production of synthetic jet fuel, which burns cleaner than jet fuels derived from petroleum. In 2008, Sasol’s synthetic jet fuel was approved for use in commercial airliners all over the world, and in 2010, South Africa became the first nation to fly an airliner fueled entirely with Sasol’s synthetic fuels. Previous aircraft had relied on a mixture of 50 percent conventional jet fuel and 50 percent synthetic.
However, Sasol produces its fuels using Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, an indirect method of turning coal into fuel which first turns the coal into gases that must be further refined to create liquid fuel. Fischer-Tropsch requires actually burning the coal.
But a coal to liquids facility operating in Shenhua, China, utilizes a direct liquefaction method that allows coal to be converted into liquid fuels directly.
The process, which is the same that will be in use at the Domestic Synthetic Fuels facility in Mason County, West Virginia, combines crushed coal with hydrogen derived from natural gas and subjects them to heat and pressure. When a catalyst is added, the results are liquids that need little further refinement to become fuel.
Although heated, the coal is never burned, making the process at Shenhua and Domestic Synthetic Fuels relatively clean and efficient. Shenhua has been in operation since 2010, reportedly producing 20,000 barrels a day of diesel oil and other liquids.