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.

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