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Front Page » August 25, 2005 » The Business Journal » Looking for some fine jet fuel
Published 3,345 days ago

Looking for some fine jet fuel


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By RICHARD SHAW
General manager

There is over a million tons of coal fines laying around Carbon County, and up until now it has seemed of little value to the community, except for a few small attempts to utilize them.

But now a company has approached the county that could change that, in fact it could change the face of Carbon County as we know it.

As diesel fuel has climbed steadily in price over the past few years, outstripping in cost its previously more expensive cousin, gasoline, the United States government and in particular the military has been expending more and more money to keep its ground and flying forces in action. The cost of wholesale diesel at the present time is around $1.91 a gallon. What if a company could offer a fuel to the military that could be produced for $1.26 per gallon? And what if that fuel could totally be produced within the United States without having to rely on shipping lanes and unstable governments in other parts of the world for supplies?

It seems an answer to a prayer; and if fuel like that could be driven into the oil market, the question also is raised how much the lack of military demand might push down civilian prices?

Enter the Baard Energy Company. While they are not the only company in the world that is looking to turn coal fines and coal deposits into fuel that could be burned in almost any kind of engine, they are the one that seems very interested in the possibility of developing a plant to handle such a process in the local area.

"This type of a plant could be of great economic importance to Carbon County," said Delynn Fielding, economic development director for the county earlier this week. "It is very preliminary, but a plant like they are talking about building would cost $2.6 billion to build and would employe 200 people."

Add to that the fact that it would revitalize the coal industry in the area, possibly opening new mines and of course generating spin off business, the impact could be enormous. The tax base alone would double with the construction of a plant like that.

Over the years many people have heard about schemes for converting various kinds of biomass into fuels that could be burned in all kinds of vehicles. Some of the processes were pie in the sky. Others were more viable, but so expensive that it made any such move economically impossible.

Coal fines lay in various places around the county. This deposit near Wellington is one of, if not the largest.

But the idea of converting coal to diesel, kerosene or jet fuel is a very old one, invented in 1923 by two German scientists, Fraz Fischer and Hans Tropsch while they were working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. The process, known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, now applies more generically to a number of processes that have been developed to do the conversion over the years, but it is very viable. The only thing that has kept it from being done on a large scale basis in this country is the cost and the need.

The Fischer-Tropsch process has been proven successful many times as long as the funding is available for its operation. During World War II the German military used the process to provide their war machine with fuel after all there external supplies were cut off by the allies. Actually the Germans had planned for it because at the beginning of the war there were six plants producing more than four million barrels of product per year.

In essence the process is a catalyzed chemical reaction in which carbon monoxide and hydrogen are converted into liquid hydrocarbons, which come out in various forms.

The fuel the modern process produces has very few particulates which makes it environmentally much safer than regular diesel fuel. Byproducts include wax, ink base and with the plant that Baard is proposing in Carbon County, even a large amount of power generation that is created by the heat from the cracking process.

In terms of use in vehicles, Fischer-Tropsch fuels are one of the easiest for a user to adapt to, particularly when compared to other alternative fuels. The fuels require no engine modifications and present fueling stations and equipment can be utilized in the same manner as with petroleum based fuels. The fuels are slightly less energy dense, however, which could result in such problems as being less economical or even some loss of power over petrofuels. However, South Africa has used these fuels to power many of their buses and trucks for 50 years, and have found it to be very reliable and economical.

The national oil reserves that the United States government presently holds has been a source of contention over the years with some people calling for their release when oil prices get too high. But the main reason these reserves are in place is to supply the military in the case of a crisis, a crisis in which fuel could become the linchpin for victory or defeat.

However, a large plant producing fuel from a domestic source, which is far inland and away from harbors and shipping lanes, where terrorists or others could not affect their shipment as easily, could be very desirable.

Hence, Carbon County with its large deposits of coal and coal fines, could be an ideal producer for inland bases such as Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah and Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

The gate at the old NELCO site is locked and closed, but could soon be open to a new plant that would use coal fines to produce jet and diesel fuel for the military.

These ideas are not speculation, but exactly the direction that Baard Energy says it plans to move.

This past week a representative from Baard Energy has been not only meeting with local officials on the possibility, but also has been meeting with the states congressional delegation.

In a recent letter to Congressman Jim Matheson, all three Carbon County commissioners urged him to support in any way the construction of the project. According to their figures the project could use up to 6 million tons of coal per year, clean up the coal fines that remain in the county and provide 500 to 700 support jobs besides what the plant itself would supply.

While Baard is looking at several sites, the one that is in Carbon County has a lot of promise. It is the old NEICO site south and east of Wellington on Farnum Road. The site has large amounts of coal fines that were slurried.

In addition, as with all industrial processes, water is an important factor and one that always has at least some effect on whether a industry can move to the area or not. The site has water rights attached to it, but more importantly, the effluent line from the Price River Water Improvement Districts waste water plant is only a few thousand feet away, which could under agreement provide millions of gallons of water per day for such an operation.

Other positive things about the site include rail line proximity (right next to the property) and a work force that could provide most of the skills necessary to operate such a facility.

According to figures put out by the company, such a plant would use 17,000 tons of coal per day and produce 9,000 barrels of diesel fuel, 19,000 barrels of jet fuel, 750 barrels of ammonia option for fertilizer, 7,000 barrels of naphtha (used in solvents and fuels) and produce 350 megawatts of power in the process.

One of the biggest factors in the development of this idea is the fact that the recent energy bill that passed congress provides for a 50 cent per gallon tax credit for fuel produced from coal.

The plant is still conceptual, but with the rise of fuel prices, and volatility in both the petroleum market as well as the political atmosphere of Middle Eastern and South American countries where the largest supplies exist, it could become a reality very soon, changing the atmosphere of business in the county for a very long time.


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