The United States Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy, through the Gasification Systems Program, is developing innovative and flexible modular designs for converting diverse types of US domestic coal into clean synthesis gas to enable the low-cost production of electricity, high-value chemicals, hydrogen, transportation fuels, and other useful products to suit market needs. Advancements in this area will help enable early adoption of small-scale modular coal gasification and other syngas-based technologies in both domestic and international markets. The general objective is to increase use of abundant domestic coal resources in strategic or targeted high-value applications, thereby contributing towards increased energy security and the revival of depressed markets in traditional coal-producing regions of the United States.
DOE’s work in Gasification Systems provides new options for synthesizing liquid fuels from coal, a relevant option for locations experiencing high imported fuel costs and in facilities that desire to store energy in liquid chemical form. Gasification enables Coal-to-Liquids (CTL) by producing coal-derived syngas, followed by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis to generate liquid hydrocarbon-based transportation fuels. Syngas-based fuels synthesis technologies is commercialized at large-scale, but improvements are needed for this technology to be viable for smaller scales that could be employed in remote areas or near mine mouth. These market-tailored and site-specific applications drives Department of Energy’s focus on improving catalysts, reactors, and other technologies to make coal gasification-based CTL cost effective and efficient at flexible modular scales.
Despite advances in gasification technologies over the past several decades, costs of gasification systems remain high. Historically, industry has lowered prices via “economies of scale”, but the huge capital investment required for large plants and the accompanying financial risk have become significant barriers to market penetration. It is envisioned that smaller-scale and modular gasification systems would reduce costs through the principle of mass production. Furthermore, modular systems could take advantage of reaction intensification, improved reactor designs, and use advanced methods of manufacturing and advanced materials to further reduce costs and boost performance. Keeping unit sizes small would moderate capital investment costs. Modular gasification-based energy conversion plants that are flexibly right-sized, configured, and sited to take advantage of local labor pools and utilize feedstocks of low cost coal, waste coal, and coal fines, could be optimized to supply local and niche markets for power, combined heat and power, and fuels production, thereby conferring significant site-specific impacts and benefits.