Written by Byron Elton
As a 2011 UC Davis study indicates, the global oil supply is set to run dry 90 years before replacements, such as renewable energy, are ready. Such measurements are helpful in driving development and establishing market-ready deadlines, but perhaps their largest contribution is the conversation they spark about how to address this problem.
The biggest obstacle to replacing petroleum is that alternative fuel technologies not only have severe limitations, but are decades away from being affordable without substantial government subsidies. They also require expensive infrastructure changes. While waiting for alternatives to mature, a technology that bridges our current and future energy consumption habits is needed to wean us from petroleum-based fuel.
Consider the good and bad aspects of today’s energy challenges. First, the bad news: each and every day the United States consumes 20 million barrels of crude oil. We produce seven million barrels, which means that we need to purchase 13 million barrels from foreign sources. At current prices of about $100 a barrel, that adds up to nearly $1.3 billion a day that we send outside the country, or $474.5 billion a year.
Now for some good news: there are technologies being developed that could produce copious amounts of gasoline and other transportation fuels by using other fossil fuels such as natural gas. The United States has more natural gas than any other country in the world. Known estimated reserves are 4,000 trillion cubic feet – the equivalent of 700 billion barrels of crude oil, or three times the current amount in Saudi Arabia. A colorless, odorless and tasteless fuel, natural gas has gained support from oil industry heavyweights, including gas and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens who is campaigning to reduce the use of natural gas for generating electricity and increasing its use as a transportation fuel.
Carbon Sciences is working on a method that combines methane from natural gas with carbon dioxide (CO2) to create a syngas, or fuel precursor, that can then be converted into gasoline. Acting as a drop-in replacement for crude oil-based gasoline, it can be used in current infrastructure, supply chain and vehicles—an enormous advantage over other fuel technologies, such as biofuels or compressed natural gas (CNG).
DRY REFORMING'S NEW CATALYST
Dry reforming efforts in the past have suffered from low conversion efficiency and premature catalyst deactivation. The latter problem has arisen because the catalyst used has not been of high enough quality to maintain robustness throughout the entire dry reforming process.
Carbon Sciences' use of a new catalyst, composed of nickel and cobalt and supported by aluminum and magnesium, has allowed for conversion of methane and selectivity to CO and H2 that is as high at the end of the reforming process as it is in the beginning. After thousands of hours of laboratory and commercial testing, the catalyst maintained high conversion efficiency and, unlike those before it, resisted deactivation under harsh industrial operating conditions. This catalyst allows for the creation of a synthesis gas, or syngas, from natural gas and CO2. The syngas is then converted into drop-in fuels using a well-known Fischer-Tropsch process.
Compared to traditional methane reforming processes, no rare earth metals are required, bringing costs down further. Additionally, the methane required can be easily sourced from traditional natural gas fields, or other sources including landfills, algae and biomass, coal-fired plants, flare gas and livestock gas.
Once manufacturing partners have been secured, the new technology will serve as a substitute for gasoline and other fuels, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and contributing thousands of new jobs to an emerging industry.
The world is not facing an energy crisis; it is facing a fuel crisis. We are not running out of electricity, we are running out of cheap, easy crude oil. The utilization of domestic natural gas and greenhouse gases to make transportation fuels will benefit the environment and the economy, create well-paying jobs and achieve the energy independence that we have longed for and talked about for too long.