Is Coal the Next Gasoline?

Could good old-fashioned coal be the future of the fuel industry?

Is coal the next fuel?

At Esurance, we pride ourselves on being the foremost authority on coal and all of its scientific uses.

OK … maybe that’s not entirely (or even remotely) true.

But one coal trend is of particular interest to us: the notion that this resource (often associated with West Virginia and empty holiday stockings) could actually power our cars.

And the crazy thing about this new idea is that it’s not really that crazy — or new. In fact, Germans have been liquefying coal for use as motor fuel since WWII (when they were cut off from the Middle East and its oil supply). And here in the U.S., we’ve been tinkering with new versions of that very process since 2009.

Now, you might be asking, “If turning coal into motor fuel is so time-tested, why aren’t we doing it on a regular basis?”

The case against coal as gasoline

The main argument against using coal as liquid fuel is simple. It basically says that while the shortage of oil on our planet is a big deal, the threat of global warming is a bigger one — and liquefying coal would not help.

Even the newest methods of transforming coal into fuel (ones that cut back on carbon monoxide) aren’t enough to make fuel clean. Experts say there’s no way to prevent harmful emissions from hitting the atmosphere and causing both health and environmental dangers when we liquefy coal.

The case for coal as gasoline

Those who support using coal for gasoline feel a bit differently. Many of them say that cutting dependency on foreign oil, not halting climate change, is the more urgent matter. And while liquefying coal, and the harmful emissions that come with it, wouldn’t be a permanent solution, supporters believe it would be a solid intermediate step. In other words, it would let us break our oil dependency and search for more sustainable options without neglecting our energy (and driving) needs.

Along with that, there’s another positive aspect to liquefying coal for gasoline: we know we can do it. It’s actually a piece of cake (relatively speaking). And with all the brain-busting our scientific leaders have been doing in search of energy, it can be comforting to know we have at least one option nailed down.

The hung jury

One other issue at play here, one without such defined sides, is how using coal as gasoline for vehicles would affect the burgeoning electric car industry. Is this whole coal craze simply getting in the way of the electric movement, which could prove to be the best option down the road? Or, in the true fashion of capitalism, would coal competition be a good way to keep the electric car business striving and improving?

Clearly, there’s a lot to consider when discussing coal as a viable fuel option. Where do you stand on the matter? Leave a comment below.

One Response to “Is Coal the Next Gasoline?”

  1. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    William Wolski
    February 22, 2013 #

    CTL or coal to liquids conversion has been around in Germany since two Germans (Fischer Tropsch) developed a method for converting coal to gasoline (and other products) in the late 1920s. You are right about Germany, which has abundant coal reserves, using coal to create gasoline fuel in WWII: Coal gasoline was used to supply the Panzers in the Battle of the Bulge.
    Later, the South Africans used (and use it today) CTL to develop their gasoline reserves under apartheid. Johannesburg sits on top of a large kidney shaped coal field. CTL is used in their Synthetic CTL program called SASOL (I and II). In the U.S.,
    I have been advocating the CTL conversion of Illinois coal for many years. Because of its high sulphur content, Illinois coal is mostly economically impractical as a steam coal. But it is perfect for CTL conversion. Illinois coal reserves (Illinois coal basin) contain more BTUs than all the oil in Saudi Arabia. The Illinois towns of Carbondale and Coal City are testament to our reserves.
    In the near term, the Bakken North Dakota and Eagle Ford Texas (and others) gas and oil discoveries through fracking, will make the U.S. energy independent in the next 4 years. Liquids from coal is still economically viable in a cost/BTU analysis against the new discoveries and it is important as a strategic resource for Homeland Security. But even more importantly, oil, gas and fuel development will be the nations largest creator of NEW jobs in the next ten years… and our best/biggest chance for getting us out of a $17 trillion debt.

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