Rentech, a company that turns hydrocarbons like natural gas and coal into alternative fuels, says it has started producing an “ultra clean synthetic fuel” at a demonstration unit in Colorado. It’s a controversial process, particularly when coal is used, because it can be a significant carbon dioxide-emitter when combusted. Rentech defends its synthetic fuel process as more environmentally friendly than petroleum fuel and says it can also be used to convert biomass and municipal waste.
Basically Rentech uses an advanced version of the Fischer Tropsch process and an iron-based catalyst to turn synthetic gas into fuel. At the Colorado demo unit, Rentech is already producing fuel from natural gas and plans to produce 420 gallons per day of synthetic jet and diesel fuels. The demo plant will also provide samples so that the fuel can be tested for environmental requirements.
While we appreciate that there are a lot of options out there for changing the face of transportation, if this process is chiefly used to turn coal into fuel, this will be a big problem. Rentech spokesperson Julie Dawoodje confirmed that one of the feedstocks for its synthetic fuel demo unit could be coal. Environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, are convinced that turning coal into liquid fuel is a disaster from the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions.
Those that are interested in the coal to fuel process are largely interested in the economics — coal is cheap and abundant, and would reduce the need to import oil from unstable regions. The military has been eying using coal to liquids for jet fuel, and diesel for long-distance trucking.
Interestingly, Rentech ranked No. 7 for most money spent on lobbying by the alternative energy industry. (This was as of June 30 and the numbers have since been updated, changing the rankings.) When asked if there was a specific cause Rentech was interested in promoting through its lobbying dollars, Dawoodje said that anything that promotes alternative fuels was good for the company.