Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer

Frequently asked questions about synthetic fuel

Montana is actively pursuing development of coal-to-liquids technology as a means of converting our significant coal reserves into synthetic gasoline and other fuels. Synthetic versions of petroleum fuels have been made for almost a century, and this technology offers great promise for reducing American dependence on foreign oil. Here are answers to some basic questions about coal-to-liquids technology.

What is synthetic fuel?
Synthetic fuels, also known as synfuel or Fischer-Tropsch liquids, are fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, that are made synthetically-that is, from coal or natural gas instead of oil. These are clean-burning, high-performing fuels that require no engine modifications.

Why Montana?
At 120 billion tons, Montana's coal is, in liquid terms, one quarter the size of the entire Middle East oil reserve, enough fuel to power every American car for decades. If even a fraction of these reserves were responsibly developed and converted to fuel we could greatly reduce the oil we now import from foreign regimes and offer our military, the largest consumer of foreign oil, a domestic alternative.

Where is synthetic fuel made today?
South Africa is the leading producer, making about 200,000 barrels of gasoline and diesel a day from coal. A number of other countries, including Qatar, Malaysia and China, are investing in synfuel production in response to increased global demand for oil and other energy. Synfuels have been in use for many decades. Notoriously, in the 1940s Germany powered most of its war effort using coal-based diesel.

How would the military benefit from synfuel?
The Office of the Secretary of Defense recently issued a Clean Fuels Initiative, a proposal to run all battlefield machinery on a single synthetic fuel. This would enable the military to avoid buying oil from unstable regimes that are known sponsors of terror, and would reduce the military's supply chain vulnerabilities such as those now occurring in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. As well, being able to run battlefield equipment on a single fuel, rather than multiple fuels, would give the military a strong logistical edge.

Why haven't synfuels been pursued in America before?
They have. In fact, the U.S. government was seriously exploring synfuel as early as 1925. In the 1940s, a Synthetic Liquid Fuels Act passed by Congress even appropriated over $80 million for research and production. By the 1950s, America was producing thousands of gallons of synthetic gasoline a day at a test plant in Missouri. But the discovery of cheap oil, combined with a lobbying effort by the oil industry, caused the government to abandon its synfuel research. During the oil crisis in the late 1970s, the federal government briefly discussed synfuel production, but abandoned the idea when the price of oil receded.

Why are synfuels cleaner than traditional fuels?
Synthetic fuel technology works by heating coal into gas in a contained reaction requiring no external energy. This first step is known as coal gasification, and is used widely around the world to create other forms of energy and industrial products. The gas is then cleansed of sulfur, mercury, arsenic and other toxins, as well as greenhouse gasses, and then distilled into a synthetic form of crude oil which can be refined on site to create any liquid fuel. The resulting fuels burn dramatically cleaner than petroleum-based fuels and can help America reduce emissions.

Are there other applications of this technology?
In addition to making liquid fuels, coal gasification can be used to generate electricity with virtually no emissions and, looking toward the future, can be used to produce hydrogen for use in fuel cells. Byproducts from the process include industrial materials such as naptha, waxes for cosmetics, fertilizer, and carbon dioxide for advanced oil recovery.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer


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