In its worldwide search for transportation fuel, China is turning to West Virginia University for cleaner, affordable, domestic options.

A team led by WVU Chemical Engineer Elliot Kennel will be conducting experiments to convert biomass and coal to transportation fuel under a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and using equipment donated by the Lu’an Group, a Chinese energy business enterprise.

China has one of the world’s fastest growing automotive markets. According to the Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2010, car sales in China surged by nearly 50 percent in 2009 while sales through 2010 were expected to slow to a 7- to 10-percent. Experts predict that the growing demand will strain world oil markets.

“China plans to use coal-to-liquids technology to lessen its dependence on foreign oil,” said Jerald Fletcher, director of WVU’s US-China Energy Center. “Kennel’s project is interesting because it will help China develop technologies that are intended to lessen coal’s environmental impact.”

Recent award

The $304,000 project is one of several under a recent $1.2 million award to the WVU US-China Energy Center from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy to study the long term environmental and economic impacts of coal liquefaction in China. The US-CEC is a joint program of WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and the National Research Center for Coal and Energy, also at WVU.

Lu’an Group has provided a liquefaction research facility which is being installed in the NRCCE on WVU’s Evansdale campus where the research will take place.

“We’ll be combining a pyrolysis reaction with a Fischer-Tropsch reaction to produce liquid transportation fuels,” said Kennel, who is based in the WVU College of Engineering and Mineral Resources Department of Chemical Engineering.

Pyrolysis is well-known for making charcoal, and the Fischer-Tropsch process, or F-T, has been used by South Africa for decades to make diesel and jet fuels, said Kennel.

“Pyrolysis is a low-cost and efficient process which usually makes tarry chemicals, while F-T produces an ultra-clean fuel but is not as efficient as petrochemical processes.”

By combining the two processes and using both coal and biomass as the feedstock, hybrid processes can be cleaner and still affordable, both of which are important to the US DOE and its counterparts in China.

“Much of the coal and biomass liquefaction research going on today assumes that all you need to do is add biomass. But you really need to look at the whole process from planting the seed, fertilizing, harvesting, and shipping it and from mining the coal, processing, and shipping it, then gasifying and reforming both together into a liquid fuel. We’re going to evaluate this whole chain,” said Kennel.

“The Chinese are serious about balancing environmental and economic progress,” he added.

This project is one of the U.S. tasks under Annex IIA in the area of clean coal fuels signed by China’s National Energy Administration and the US Department of Energy.

“WVU is the only U.S. university participating under the annex,” said Fletcher. “It’s important to note that Annex IIA is part of the Protocol for Cooperation in the Field of Fossil Energy Technology Development and Utilization between the U.S. Department of Energy and the China Ministry of Science and Technology,” he said.

“This effort supports WVU’s Advanced Energy Initiative which seeks to position the university as a global leader in clean energy solutions,” said Curt Peterson, WVU’s vice-president for research and economic development.