The End of Oil? Breakthrough Turns Coal Into Clean Diesel

April 18, 2006

With the price of oil topping a wallet-busting U.S. $70 a barrel yesterday, the search for alternative fuels keeps heating up.

Last week, scientists announced what may be a new end-run around the oil problem: producing diesel fuel from coal, natural gas, and organic material.

Reporting in the current issue of the Journal Science, researchers say they have developed a way to shuffle the carbon atoms derived from cheap fuel sources like coal to form more desirable combinations, such as ethane gas and diesel fuel.

In their study, scientists scrambled the makeup of hydrocarbons—organic compounds found in fossil fuels—using two chemical processes, one of which earned last year's Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The reaction produced ethane gas and diesel fuel.

The synthetic diesel "is much cleaner burning than conventional diesel, even cleaner burning than gasoline," said Rutgers University chemist Alan Goldman.

Goldman co-developed the process with Maurice Brookhart, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"It's a very clever idea," Robert Bergman, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, told Science in an accompanying news report.

"I don't think this will be an industrial process tomorrow. But conceptually, it is important."

Nazi Germany

The technology might one day wring more diesel fuel and ethane gas from hydrocarbon byproducts produced by oil refineries.

But the new chemistry's greatest potential may be as a follow-up to an 80-year-old technology known as Fischer Trospch (FT) synthesis.

Continued on Next Page >>




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