The idea to shorten a process used to convert natural gas to diesel is attracting interest from an Oklahoma processor.
Enough natural gas is burned off at well heads each day to make 1 million barrels of synthetic crude.
Galen Suppes, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Kansas University, has pushed the scientific envelope in his research lab to find a way of transforming that wasted energy into liquid fuel for cars and trucks.
Suppes and colleagues began research 18 months ago to shorten a three-step process traditionally used to produce liquid fuel from coal. In KU labs, they've shown it was possible to make cost-effective, high-performance synthetic diesel from natural gas while skipping a costly phase of the old conversion process.
"It was surprising how well it worked. It's an exciting project," Suppes said this week. "Preliminary engine tests indicate that these formulations are probably the best liquid fuel that has ever been recorded for use in a diesel engine."
Syntroleum Corp., a world leader in commercialization of synthetic fuels based in Tulsa, Okla., helped finance the KU research and has contracted with several companies to test the theory on a large scale.
German scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the original technology in the 1920s. Their system was relied upon during World War II to provide Germany with a source of diesel within its borders. The diesel was made from coal.
Suppes said KU research and other modern production advances mean liquid fuel made from natural gas can now go straight into the tank of conventional diesel vehicles.
"We used the synthetic oil in different formulations in engine tests and identified several that worked very well in an unmodified diesel engine," Suppes said. "These are nice liquid fuels. They're affordable and clean."
Natural gas is the most plentiful and the cleanest of fossil fuels.
Syntroleum believes a synthetic diesel could sell for less than $1.50 a gallon.
Why hasn't the idea surfaced previously?
Suppes said large corporations involved in fuel production had a bias against alternative fuels. For example, most energy company executives oppose regulations that required blending with ethanol. In testing at KU, synthetic diesel blended with ethanol performed admirably.
"This is not a question of profitability," Suppes said. "They didn't look at it because of the bad attitude toward ethanol. Most big oil companies don't want to put ethanol in fuels. At KU you see a different attitude. We'd like to see ethanol work -- to have greater application and greater utility."
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