G&M Publishes Bad Science

March 18th, 2010 by Potato

The Globe and Mail looks to have been taken in by a perpetual motion machine type scammer in today’s article “Texas university has eureka moment for coal-to-gas”.

I’m not saying that there’s necessarily anything wrong with the main topic of the article: it is possible to make gasoline or other liquid fuels from coal, and researchers in Texas may have found a way to do so economically. What I take issue with are these lines:

“Far better, he said, to capture CO{-2} right at power plants and convert it into crude on the spot. ” … “Assuming, arbitrarily for the moment, that Texas has struck oil in a huge way yet again, UTA’s announcement shows that energy research has finally begun to move in the right direction – simultaneously toward clean coal and the commercial exploitation of carbon dioxide. The reasons are obvious. The world has enough coal reserves to last for centuries. And it has enough CO{-2} – used as an abundant new raw material – to last forever. Harnessed together, this cheap coal and this greenhouse gas could drive the global economy for hundreds of years. “

Carbon dioxide is the product of burning fossil fuels. You have some energy-carrying molecule, you release the energy, and you get carbon dioxide. In order to take carbon dioxide and turn it back into an energy-carrying molecule (oil, coal, sugar, whatever), you have to have a source of energy to get the energy back into the system. For biofuels, this reaction takes place inside plants using energy from the sun. To think that you can simply take the carbon dioxide from a power plant and convert it to crude on the spot is ludicrous — akin to the perpetual-motion machine ideas like putting a windmill on your car.

On top of that, it doesn’t sound like much of a breakthrough: a tonne of coal has something like 15 GJ of energy. To turn that into 1.5 barrels of oil would reduce that to something like 9 GJ of energy, and only about 25% of the mass. Where has the other 1500 lbs of coal gone? Probably used up to supply the energy for the conversion, and out as carbon dioxide. It may be economical (due to the cheap price of coal vs oil), but it’s not particularly green or efficient. Except for rare cases where liquid fuels are needed for range (or where you need to keep the tanks in the blitzkrieg rolling, no matter how much of your total energy reserves it eats up), for transportation purposes it would be far better to burn the coal to make electricity, and then use electrified transportation, than to convert it to gasoline at that kind of conversion ratio.

Update: I contacted Mr. Reynolds at the Globe to inform him that something wasn’t right in his article. He provided me with the original source, which still is missing that key ingredient of how this isn’t just a perpetual motion machine:

“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.”

One Response to “G&M Publishes Bad Science”

  1. mcmatterson Says:

    I read that article too and immediately looked for the source. Couldn’t find it, which is not surprising when the claim is basically that they’ve found a way around the laws of thermodynamics.