CANADIAN MINING PERSPECTIVE: Can coal-to-hydrocarbons replace oil?

Like our readers, we at CMJ have watched the price of crude oil skyrocket and heard the voices of the "greens" call...


Like our readers, we at CMJ have watched the price of crude oil skyrocket and heard the voices of the "greens" calling for a more environmentally friendly energy source.

We don't usually comment on the oil industry except the massive mining operations of the Alberta oil sands. The oil sands have been roundly criticized as one of the least environmentally friendly fuel sources. Their mining and processing could be made cleaner with a liberal injection of money, but the oil sands still produce conventional hydrocarbons in the end.

Ethanol has been suggested as a replacement for hydrocarbons. But the use of corn, rice and wheat in the manufacture of ethanol has played a major part in the rise of food staple prices, placing an unbearable burden on the world's most disadvantaged people.

Coal, of course, is the second most popular energy source, behind hydrocarbons. It has a reputation of being dangerous to mine and dirty to burn. The public would raise noisy objections if someone suggested bringing back yesteryear's smoke belching locomotives and home furnaces. Technology, however, may be close to solving the emissions problem.

One solution would be turning coal into hydrocarbons. ROYAL DUTCH SHELL of the Netherlands has a gasification technology that may make the conversion an economic reality. CIC ENERGY of the British Virgin Islands intends to put the Shell technology to the test at its coal-to-hydrocarbons in Botswana. The goal is to gasify the coal first and then convert the syngas to methanol and then to gasoline and dimethyl-ether (DME) which might be used as a substitute for diesel fuel. Continuing high oil prices might make the CIC Energy plant economic, and it would become attractive to many other producers.

Coal is found on all continents except Antarctica. Coal resources are far, far greater than oil and gas resources in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. If coal can be converted to hydrocarbons on a commercial scale, there are a few concerns that will have to be addressed. The process must be environmentally friendly. The resulting hydrocarbons must burn cleanly. And the cost must be competitive with crude-based products. One those concerns are addressed, almost all countries (except the oil producing countries of the Middle East) will have access to a greener hydrocarbon source.

I write about this because I want our readers to know that gasoline can come from many sources. Why not from one of the world's most widely available minerals?


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