Sunday, July 10, 2005

Some answers about Schweitzer's coal panacea

Finally, from the science-and-technology e-magazine (filched from the Missoulian), an article that answers my burning questions about the Governor's idea of creating a clean-coal processing plant in Indian country. Apparently, the thing is called Fischer-Tropsch technology:

Montana owns 600 million tons of coal, located alongside 600 million tons owned by Great Northern Properties and 1.2 billion tons owned by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

The coal conversion process produces no air pollution, uses no water and creates electricity as a byproduct. The petroleum fuels produced could be shipped out-of-state by pipeline.

"It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?" Schweitzer said in a recent interview. "This is a physicist at the Department of Defense saying we're getting serious about this, and we'll buy all you produce."
Damn right it sounds too good to be true. But Schweitzer, whose master's degree in soil science gives him the background to understand this sort of thing, describes the chemical process in detail:

"What you do first is the coal gasification process," Schweitzer said. "You crush the coal, heat it and get your gas. From there, it's a chemical reaction. You have a big tank and use either cobalt or iron as the catalyst. What you get out of that is the building blocks to make fuel. You get carbon .monoxide and you get hydrogen. With those two, you can make any fuel you would like to make - diesel, gasoline, heating fuel, plastics, fertilizer or pure hydrogen."
Fischer-Tropsch technology hasn't been used, says the Governor, because it's until recently been more expensive than traditional petroleum, but that's changed now. The process was successfully used by Hitler and also by the De Klerk government in South Africa during the worldwide embargo there.

And Schweitzer's thinking big -- really big:

"We're not talking about one plant here," Schweitzer said. "I want to get the first one off and going, and it could look like this all over Montana."
What he's saying is, he's going to create in Montana a new source of energy that, as he's said before, can power the entire U.S. for eight hundred years. He's going to make a the ultimate supply-side economy for the state, and the DOD is going to lap up everything he makes to ensure that the supply is matched by demand. He's going to share the profits with Montana's most impoverished Indian tribes in order to drag them out of poverty.

In short, Schweitzer is going to make Montana the envy of America, a move that will immediately catapult him into the top tier of the Presidential race, even without the netroots support he's beginning to achieve (thanks again, Kari).
Of course, like any visionary plan, this one is fraught with risks -- the initial plant alone is going to cost $2.5 billion to build. But Schweitzer, like the enlightened leader he is showing himself to be, isn't afraid to take risks when they make sense and when the payoff is great. If Schweitzer succeeds in this, he will literally be the man who singlehandedly averted the energy crisis, the new Herbert Hoover (that is, the 1928 Hoover, who built dams and electrified the West and could do no wrong).

The Governor seems to understand just how important, possibly seminal, this issue is.

"I'm not going to be shooting from the hip here," he said. "I'm going to bring in the best there is to be our advisers."
So for now, we'll wait and watch. But the possibilities are astounding, both for Schweitzer and for the future of American energy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have done some searching into the Fischer-Tropf process following your link and the one thing that stood out was of all the fuels, FT was the highest producer of greenhouse gases, due mainly to the extra processing involved in synthesizing. A large scale switch to this fuel would have the net effect of accelerating the pace of global warning. If you can find a way to make up for this shortcoming it would certainly put Peak Oil off, hopefully long enough to find longer term and more durable solutions.

One other puzzling thing about this, estimates of usable coal seem to be between 2-3 centuries. If we start using extra coal to make gas, how will the coal suddenly last 8 centuries. BTW, I would really like to know, not just here to throw a wet blanket on the whole idea..

July 27, 2005 12:29 PM  

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