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A Breakthrough In Wringing Liquid Fuel From Coal


Developments to Watch

A BREAKTHROUGH IN WRINGING LIQUID FUEL FROM COAL

Synthetic fuel was supposed to alleviate America's dependence on imported oil by squeezing an oil-like liquid out of coal. However, synfuel hasn't delivered on its promise. A barrel of liquefied coal costs more than $30, or at least 50% more than the real thing. But synfuel may get another chance, as a result of research at Pennsylvania State University.

Last year, Chunshan Song, an assistant professor of fuel science, hoped to trim costs by finding a better way of drying the black lumps before they're tossed into a high-pressure oven. Instead, Song stumbled on a "magic effect." By adding more water and lowering heat and pressure, he got a radical improvement in liquefaction efficiency. "We couldn't believe it," says Song. So his research team double-checked--and finally went public on Aug. 23. If the technique can be scaled up to a commercial process, Song predicts a "major impact" on costs, because the approach is four times as fast as previous ones and less expensive to operate. Moreover, it works with subbituminous coal, the cheapest type.EDITED BY PETER COY


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