Professor Alan Goldman and his Rutgers team in collaboration with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have developed a way to convert carbon sources, such as coal, to diesel fuel.
This important advance could significantly cut America’s dependence on foreign oil – what President Bush called “an addiction” in his 2006 State of the Union address. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, our 286 billion tons of coal in the ground translate into energy reserves 40 times those of oil. Diesel engines provide the power to move 94 percent of all freight in the U.S. and 95 percent of all transit buses and heavy construction machinery, consuming approximately 56 billion gallons of diesel fuel per year.
Goldman explained that the breakthrough technology employs a pair of catalytic chemical reactions that operate in tandem, one of which captured the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This dynamic chemical duo revamps the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process for generating synthetic petroleum substitutes, invented in 1920 but never developed to the point of becoming commercially viable for coal conversion.
“I study catalysts, the little molecular machines that control chemical reactions. With our new catalysts, one can generate productive, clean burning fuels economically and at unsurpassed levels of efficiency using Fischer-Tropsch,” said Goldman, a professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers.
The work grew out of a National Science Foundation-funded research consortium, the Center for the Activation and Transformation of Strong Bonds, based at the University of Washington.
Fischer-Tropsch yields a wide distribution of molecular weight hydrocarbon products but without any way to control the desired mix. The low-weight and the high-weight Fischer-Tropsch products are useful – the light as gas and the medium-heavy as diesel fuel, Goldman explained.
“The problem – the greatest inefficiency of the process – is that you also wind up with a substantial quantity of medium-weight products that are not useful and you are stuck with them,” Goldman said. “What we are now able to do with our new catalysts is something no one else has done before. We take all these undesirable medium-weight substances and convert them to the useful higher- and lower-weight products.”