Menlo Park, California – Researchers at SRI International in California have identified a promising new way to produce liquid transportation fuels from coal without using water or generating carbon dioxide.

Based on data from bench-scale tests, SRI engineers estimate that the capital cost for a full-scale plant using the process would be less than half that of a conventional coal-to-liquids plant that uses a process called Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, which produces only a small fraction of the hydrocarbons needed for fuel and requires extensive recycling.

The new process uses natural gas instead of water to provide the hydrogen needed to convert coal to syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Syngas is converted into methanol, which can then be efficiently processed into transportation fuels.

The conventional process also burns a portion of the coal feed for energy, which then produces carbon dioxide. SRI’s method makes it economical to use carbon-neutral electricity such as nuclear, hydro or solar as a source of additional energy.