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New liquefaction technique could 'unlock the true value of coal'

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The Wave Liquefaction engineering-scale pilot system at H Quest Vanguard's research and development facility in Pittsburgh.

Source: H Quest Vanguard Inc.

A new technique to liquefy coal could open up diverse markets for the commodity.

"The coal industry has to reinvent itself. Those coal jobs are not just going to come out of thin air because some regulations are going to be rolled back," George Skoptsov, the president and CEO of H Quest Vanguard Inc., told S&P Global Market Intelligence. His company's new process for liquefying coal, however, "is a technology that can literally unlock the true value of coal. And of carbon in general."

His company is looking to bring a technology it has developed to liquefy coal at a more efficient rate than conventional techniques to the commercial development phase. Once liquefied, it is easier to transport and can be used for anything from an ash-free fuel to a raw carbon material that could be used in a number of products.

"The carbon materials that are in great demand are graphite, carbon fiber and other projects of that nature," he said, adding that the lithium ion batteries that are used in many electric cars have a lot of graphite, and demand for the batteries is increasing. "Coal is too valuable to burn."

Previous techniques for liquefying coal, used in things like tarmac roads or runways, came from a byproduct of metallurgical coal baked during the coking process. Skoptsov said this technique generally only draws about 3% liquid yield, or 60 pounds from a ton of coal.

The new reactors the company has developed use a technology called Wave Liquefaction that take up a lot less space than traditional coal-to-liquid plants and can draw three barrels of oil from a ton of coal a liquid yield of roughly 50%. It also converts coal powder in a fraction of a second under more mild conditions than usual coal liquefaction processes, meaning the equipment can be less expensive.

"We're at the point where we have proven the technology at the engineering scale," he said, adding that the company is now looking to make the jump to a standalone reactor that would produce two barrels per day.

After that is proven, Skoptsov said the process needs a single reactor as a pilot plant, which could produce 100 barrels of liquefied coal per day. The process would be easy to scale up, he said, since it would basically just involve stacking up the reactors.

"Ninety-nine percent of the technical risk basically disappears after you put that one demonstration plant, 100 barrels per day, into place," he said. He is seeking investment, but part of the problem, he said, is that investors are leery about getting involved in "unsexy" coal.

However, he said H Quest Vanguard recently submitted a proposal for U.S. Department of Energy funding to develop the two-barrel system, create blueprints for the 100-barrel demonstration plant and economic analysis for further scale-up to an eventual 10,000-barrel-a-day system.