Waste to Treasure: the Fisher-Tropsch Process

Between 1920 and 1945, Germany was in a time of trouble.  It had just exited World War I, and it had not come out with any positive changes.  The country in general was restricted.  It had a restricted military, restricted trade, and restricted resources.  The one resources that there was no shortage of, though, was coal.  Yet what the Germans really needed was liquid fuel to power their machines: their tanks and airplanes and cars.  So, during the 1920s, two scientists, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, came up with a process to convert coal into liquid fuel, such as synthetic diesel or jet fuel.  It was called the Fisher-Tropsch process, and has a first step of converting the coal and water into a product called synthetic gas, or syngas.  This product is achieved by applying great pressure and heat to the input (coal and diesel in this case), which converts the input into hydrogen and carbon monoxide.  From there, the gas is processed, and out comes Diesel or Jet Fuel.  If you would like to read more about the process or other similar processes, Click here.

In the past, as happened with Germany during WWII, this process served to create fuel when no other resources were available.  The Fisher-Tropsch process was also used during the Apartheid movement in South Africa, when they were isolated from the rest of the world economically.  The company Sasol produced diesel (and still does), using South Africa’s huge supplies of coal.  However, this hasn’t been the reason that countries have been experimenting with this process lately.  Large world economies, such as the US, China, and India, have been searching for potentially cheaper fuels, or more efficient fuels, as diesel is.  Unfortunately, though Fisher-Tropsch fuels may be efficient and a good alternative fuel, it requires a great amount of energy to create, and lots of expensive equipment.  Therefore, it has two other main uses, neither of which uses coal.  One is to retrieve natural gas from places where it would be too expensive to transport it in gas form.  Converting this gas into liquid fuels provides a use for this gas, and an alternative fuel for the economy.   The other, more environmentally friendly, use of the Fisher-Tropsch process is for producing biodiesel (much more efficient than Fisher-Tropsch Diesel) from Biomass.  A perfect example is the Finnish paper company UPM.  As a side production, UPM takes all the waste material from the paper and pulp making process, and converts it into diesel.  Though it is a business that directly affects the environment by cutting down trees, UPM displays true sustainability right there.  You can read more about some of these companies here.

A similar idea to what UPM is doing is being used by Waste Management and Processors Inc. in Pennsylvania.  They take waste coal from coal mines, and convert it into diesel.  Just like the paper company, they use one man’s garbage to create another man’s treasure.

Although there unfortunately aren’t large-scale plans for Fisher-Tropsch plants at this point in time, since a technology that is significantly able to lower carbon emissions hasn’t been released to the mass market, plans are out for commercial plants.  Rentech, Inc., which has a small demonstration plant in Colorado, has plans to build four new plants around the US and Canada that use the Fisher-Tropsch Process to create diesel from natural gas and biomass.  So, although this process isn’t huge in the alternative fuels industry, its influence is growing.

For more information, visit Greencar.com’s article, 5 Things You Need to Know About the Fischer-Tropsch Process.

Finally, for more information on the use of Fisher-Tropsch Diesel and other biofuels in Europe, visit Refuel’s Fischer-Tropsch Diesel page.

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