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Uses of Coal: Coal to Liquid Fuels
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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

You aren’t out of the woods coal mines just yet. While many a people know that coal is used in electricity, in the production of steel, and you may have recently learned that the black rock is used to make cement, the uses of coal don’t stop with these three prevalent industries. From learning about these other uses of coal, it may be obvious to hear that coal is commonly used for fuel once it has been mined. But, rather than coal gasification, coal liquefaction is another regular method that turns coal into a fuel source.

Coal conversion, coal liquefaction, coal to liquid fuels, CTL — among the several names this process has, it’s referring to turning coal into a liquid. However, sometimes when the method is called ‘coal liquefaction,’ it can be referring to a nonchemical process of the black rock being turned into a liquid. Don’t go turning coal to liquid fuels right this moment; CTL doesn’t only have two discrete techniques of coal conversion, CTL is also primarily used as an alternative to oil. (Hence why CTL means coal to liquid fuels.)

The two techniques, direct liquefaction and indirect liquefaction (easily shortened to DCL and ICL, respectively), receive their names because of the steps that are taken during coal conversion. In indirect liquefaction, coal isn’t immediately converted into a liquid; this technique typically involves coal gasification into a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Then, after the coal has been converted into a gaseous mixture, it is converted into a liquid. Specifically, indirect liquefaction turns the gas mix into liquid hydrocarbons. During direct liquefaction — in case the name wasn’t an obvious hint — there is no middle step of gasification for this CTL. Over the course of direct liquefaction CTL, coal is broken down or dissolved at an exceptionally high temperature in a solvent.

Though the primary use of coal liquefaction is stated in its (other) name, coal to liquid fuels is a process that creates an alternative to oil, but CTL is also used to make other alternative liquid fuels like methanol and dimethyl ether. CTL can be used to power cars and other vehicles; coal to liquid fuels have been used in South Africa to power commercial jets; in the United States, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense have been researching and developing other coal liquefaction and coal conversion methods to produce military-specialized fuels, primarily jet fuels; and just this year, Dr. Yang Yong of China was bestowed the World CTX Award for his development of a new process and related catalyst during indirect liquefaction.

Coal conversion may not be your favorite subject, but coal is more than a black rock that Santa Claus delivers to naughty children or what miners dig up for electricity and power. Among the uses of coal is coal to liquid fuels, CTL, and while some of its procedures aren’t without fault, coal is more powerful than you may think.

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