Research Magazine 2006

Energy revolution

$1 million in federal funding boosts research on alternative fuels

Mention the possibility of $30-a-barrel oil and most people will jump on the idea. Likewise, consider those millions of tons of harmful carbon dioxide spewing from industrial plants and ponder whether the emissions could be converted to an affordable hydrocarbon fuel.

Those and other ideas being researched at UT Arlington’s Center for Renewable Energy Science and Technology (CREST) are so intriguing that the U.S. Department of Energy will provide $1 million in funding this academic year.

So what about that $30 oil?

Chemistry Professor Krishnan Rajeshwar

Chemistry Professor Krishnan Rajeshwar is co-director of the Center for Renewable Energy Science and Technology. The center developed a microrefinery process that converts non-food vegetable oils to biodiesel.

“It’s really a synthetic oil, the equivalent of heavy crude, made from Texas lignite,” says Richard Billo, associate dean of engineering research and CREST co-director.

Although oil is a diminishing commodity with the biggest reserves in other countries, Texas is estimated to have more than a 200-year supply of lignite coal. Supplies elsewhere in the world are also vast. Problem is, your car doesn’t burn coal. It uses fuel refined from petroleum crude. Oil.

While coal is also a hydrocarbon, it isn’t liquid. But it can be converted to a liquid, the equivalent of heavy crude oil, then transported to and refined in existing Texas refineries. The resulting gasoline, diesel and jet fuel are then distributed within a vast existing infrastructure—something not currently possible with, say, a transition to hydrogen fuel.

The Germans successfully converted coal to synthetic oil in World War II using the Fischer-Tropsch process, notes Krishnan Rajeshwar, associate dean of the College of Science and CREST co-director. But even with modern methods, Fischer-Tropsch is still expensive, which is why CREST continues to research an alternative fuel technology using microfluidics.

Drs. Rajeshwar and Billo are convinced that a microfluidic reactor can convert coal to synthetic oil at a fraction of the cost of the German technology. Billo says microrefineries built at a low cost can produce large amounts of synthetic oil in a fraction of the time of existing Fischer-Tropsch refining processes.

“The exciting work being done by researchers in the colleges of Engineering and Science to turn coal into oil could revolutionize the way we generate energy in this country.”

Indeed, a similar microrefinery process that converts non-food vegetable oils to biodiesel fuel patented by UT Arlington researchers will be used commercially for the first time in 2009. It reduces from 90 minutes to four minutes the time needed to refine biodiesel fuel.

“I estimate a microrefinery would produce as much crude as a factory built along the competing Fischer-Tropsch technology for about 20 percent of the capital cost of construction,” Billo says. “The technology has come so far that the main area of research involves study of the appropriate catalysts and how to use them.”

A fascinating component of the proposed technology is that it also provides possibilities related to oil-rich shales and tar sands in the Rocky Mountain states, Canada and elsewhere in the world.

“There’s a trillion barrels of oil just in the shales of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado,” Rajeshwar says. “The same process will work with shale, absolutely.”

Such talk impresses U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who initially convinced the team to extend its successful research in the biodiesel microrefinery process to the conversion of Texas lignite to crude.

“We can keep oil and gasoline prices consumer-friendly if we use and support developing technology to unlock energy supplies here at home,” Barton says. “UT Arlington is playing a big role in this process. The exciting work being done by researchers in the colleges of Engineering and Science to turn coal into oil could revolutionize the way we generate energy in this country.”

Barton points out that Texas has large reserves of lignite coal and says that transforming it into oil would lower the price of gasoline, diesel fuel and other petroleum-based products.

“It only makes sense to convert Texas coal to oil at a cost of $30 a barrel, instead of importing it from Saudi Arabia at a much higher cost,” he says. “I’m really encouraging Professor Billo to continue to make connections with those in the coal industry.”

Though refining the technology for converting coal and oil shales to oil is a CREST priority, converting smokestack carbon dioxide to hydrocarbon fuels is also high on the research list.

“The idea that we can dispose of massive quantities of greenhouse gases like CO2 by piping them underground or into the oceans is not very practical,” Rajeshwar says. Better to capture carbon dioxide at power plants and cement plants, convert it to carbon monoxide and then add hydrogen from a renewable source like the water trapped inside lignite coal to make what’s called syngas.

“What’s produced is a liquid hydrocarbon fuel—synthetic oil—from which we can then make any conventional fuel, like gasoline or diesel,” Rajeshwar says. “The oil produced is very similar to that produced from coal.”

These are not the only ideas making the rounds at CREST. Others abound but are not as advanced.

“This is not hypothetical academia,” Billo says. “What we’re doing here is producing real solutions to this country acquiring sustainable and affordable energy.”

- O.K. Carter