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Britain finds new, efficient means of turning coal to oil

Is the gasoline-powered automobile obsolescent? Will the world's dwindling petroleum suppleis, approaching depletion in the next few decades, spell the end of cars as we now know them?

Emphatically not, says Derek Williams of Britain's Coal Research Establishment (CRE), a branch of the state-owned National Coal board.

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For support, he picks up a three-inch vial of tawny liquid. It contains the first elixir of proof that his tow-story, $:250,000 ($575,000) maze of steel-blue pipes, valves, and dials can take in coal at one end and pour out gasoline at the other.

Making gasoline from coal is not new. The Germans ran their vehicles on coal-based fuels during World War II. And South Africa's Sasol process currently supplies a significant proportion of that country's oil needs.

British scientists, however, dismiss both processes as primitive and inefficient. And although they are sitting atop an estimated 200 billion tons of coal -- of which 45 billion tons (300 years' worth) is extractable by present methods -- they refuse to be wasteful.

With typical frugality, they have focused their annual $:2 million ($4.6 million) coal refining budget on improving several two-stage liquefaction systems. One, akin to Sasol and to several American processes now under research, dissolves coal in a liquid solvent. The other uses high-pressure or "supercritical" gas as a solvent -- a method in which Britain leads the world.

Because of modest funding, admits assistant director George Thurlow, "We consider ourselves two to three years behind" the United States in developing commercial plants. Nevertheless, he feels that British processes have several advantages:

* Efficiency. the liquid solvent process has a "thermal value" of 65 to 70 percent -- capturing about two-thirds of the coal's original energy (including the coal burned to fuel the plant) in the liquids produced. The latest Sasol plant, by contrast, is said to be only about 35 percent efficient.

* Quality. The British process can produce a 95 percent yield of high-quality (108 octane) gasoline. It can also produce, to everyone's surprise , a diesel fuel that burns as well as its petroleum-based counterpart -- with half the smoke and very little wax.

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Next on the agenda is a $:55 million ($126.5 million) demonstration plant at Point of Ayr colliery in north Wales. Jointly funded by the government, the coal board, and British petroleum (bp), it will process 25 tons of coal a day by 1983 -- hardly a commercially useful amount, but enough to allow engineers to iron out the major problems of the scale-up.

Cost studies indicate that the British process, which CRE scientists see as a technology easily exportable to such interested countries as India and Brazil, could produce gasoline at a refinery gate price (before handling costs and taxes are added) of about 55 pence ($1.26) per gallon.

Conventional gasoline now sells here at a refinery gate price of about 35 pence (80) per gallon. "A 50 percent increase in the price of crude oil could wipe this [differential] out," says Dr. Thurlow. Such an increase is not improbable: (IEA), the price of crude oil had already risen by 135 percent over December 1978 prices.

When will britain produce coal-based gasoline on a commercial scale?

"This really depends on the rate at which money is put in and the amount fo risk one is willing to take," Says dr. Williams.

One form of risk could be to move directly from the Point of Ayr plant into a commercial operation, bypassing the middle-size (250-500 to per day) stage. Such short-circuiting might mean some costly mistakes. But, depending on the world energy situation and cost of alternative fuels in the next few years, the risks could be worth taking. The research and development strategy recently adopted by IEA ministers places coal liquefaction among its highest priorities.

In the meantime, Britain, subscribing to the IEA scenario for tripling coal production by the year 2000, will continue searching for other methods of extracting energy from coal.

And although CRE spokesman Douglas Davidson admits that "we haven't got a sense of urgency yet," he looks forward several decades to a rather diffrent energy future.

"There may be an association of coal-exporting countries," he says, "and they're going to be just as touchy as OPEC [the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries]."

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