• Gennette Cordova

Battelle turns coal to jet fuel

Updated: Jan 2

A $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ohio Coal Development Office (OCDO) is funding the continued development of a process that turns coal into liquid products, including jet fuel. The project, undertaken by Battelle, a Columbus-based research institute, was specifically advanced by the government with the goal of finding higher-value applications of coal, back in 2016.

“Our objectives are to demonstrate a straightforward path to near-term commercial production of jet fuel from coal using biomass-derived coal solvents,” said Satya Chauhan, the leader of Battelle’s process-development team, in a 2016 press release. “The Battelle process offers a significant reduction in capital and operating costs and a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Battelle researchers estimate that the breakthrough technology, which converts bituminous coal into polyurethane foam by adding hydrogen to the finely ground coal, would take another five years of development before the products are ready for commercialization. 

“We figured out that if you could add some hydrogen to coal, you could make a liquid out of it,” Chauhan said. “It would be a heavy liquid. It would be heavier than petroleum crude. And depending on how much hydrogen you add you can make jet fuel.”

And when these products are ready to go to market, Battelle and the project’s funders expect that they’ll be lucrative. Coal sells for about $50 to $60 per short ton (approximately .907 metric tonnes). The polyurethane foam products would sell for an estimated $5,000 to $6,000 per ton. 

Additionally, this process would repurpose a controversial raw material in a much eco-friendlier way. Coal is the top contributor to climate change and is a leading cause of mercury pollution. In 2011, a Harvard report found that “the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.” 

While the negative environmental effects of mining aren’t offset with Battelle’s process, the carbon from coal would be permanently captured in the foam product.

“This is an important project to illustrate the importance of employing a wide variety of approaches to use fossil fuels in an environmentally responsible way and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere,” said Chauhan. 

Ohio produced just over 7.11 million metric tonnes of coal this year which is an 8.5% decrease compared to the same period in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

According to a report published earlier this year by Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm, around 75% of coal production is more expensive than renewables and the industry may be fully out-competed economically by 2025. The study’s authors used public financial filings and data from the EIA.

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