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Liquid Fuels From Coal And Biomass Face Hurdles

by Jeff Johnson
May 18, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 21

High oil prices, new technologies, and significant financial investments will be needed for liquid fuels made from coal or biomass to succeed, a report released last week by the National Research Council says. With respect to using coal to make liquid fuel, the report finds that to offset roughly one-fifth of current U.S. transportation fuels would require a 50% increase in coal mining, that coal-based fuel would emit about twice the amount of greenhouse gases as oil unless carbon sequestration is used, and that coal liquids would not be competitive with gasoline unless oil reaches and remains at at least $60 to $70 per barrel. For biomass to ethanol to be an economically viable option, a price of $100 per barrel for oil is needed, geological storage of CO2 generated during production is needed to achieve a negative carbon balance, and ethanol distribution will be a significant problem, the report finds. It also examined a combined coal-and-biomass to liquid fuels scenario and found that there are potential benefits and higher yields of liquid fuels, but it found no such conversion plants in operation in the U.S. at this time, and, again, geologic storage of CO2 generated will be needed. The report is available at


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