Fischer-Tropsch process: what is it?

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The Fischer-Tropsch process converts syngas, made from coal, natural gas, or biomass, into liquid hydrocarbons and lubricants using a catalyst. It has been used successfully in plants, but high production costs and a large capital investment limit its widespread adoption. South African Coal and Oil has been producing liquid fuels from coal using the process since the 1950s.

The Fischer-Tropsch process converts a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, called syngas, into liquid hydrocarbons and lubricants. Coal, natural gas or biomass can be a source of syngas. It is produced by gasification, where the starting material is chemically treated with oxygen or water vapor under high temperature and pressure. The syngas is reacted under varying heat in the presence of a catalyst, usually cobalt, iron or ruthenium, to produce synthetic petroleum. German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the process in the 1920s.

Syngas as a source of liquid fuel has attracted significant interest from nations with little oil but plenty of the raw material needed to produce the gas. Liquid biomass is a particularly interesting alternative, being a renewable resource. The Fischer-Tropsch process converts syngas into liquid hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide and water. Varying grades of synthetic petroleum can be produced depending on the temperature, pressure and catalyst used in the process. At 625°F (330°C) synthetic gasoline is produced, while at 390°F (200°C) the product would be synthetic diesel, for example.

The gasification process is an energy-intensive undertaking. While the starting material can be plentiful and inexpensive, high production costs typically make syngas an uneconomical alternative. Implementing a Fischer-Tropsch process plant also requires a large capital investment in equipment and is subject to high operating costs. Further refinement of the efficiency of the process or a considerable increase in the price of natural oil would likely be required for its widespread adoption for future energy development.

Despite its drawbacks, the Fischer-Tropsch process has been used successfully in both demonstration and regular production plants. In the 1930s, the process was used in Germany to produce synthetic liquid fuel from coal abundant in the region. Continual improvement of the process has resulted in several variations with most implementations using proprietary technology.

South African Coal and Oil (SASOL) has been producing liquid fuels from coal using the Fischer-Tropsch process since the 1950s. The company has contracted two modern factories in China; each is capable of producing 80,000 barrels of synthetic oil per day. Several major oil companies have experimented with synthetic production in small-scale demonstration facilities. The world’s largest fuel consumer, the US military, continues to sponsor research into the Fischer-Tropsch process. In this case, the goal is a fuel source entirely under domestic control, rather than economic or environmental concerns.

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