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Module 2: Solid Fossil Fuel (Coal)

Lecture 13: Coal liquefaction


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Keywords: Direct coal liquefaction, indirect coal liquefaction, EDS process, H-coal process

2.5 Coal liquefaction

Coal liquefaction is a process where coal is converted into liquid fuels, mainly to provide

substitutes for petroleum products, which may be either used directly as fuel or converted into

chemicals or other liquid fuels. Coal liquefaction processes were first developed in the early 20th

century. The crude petroleum rich countries may not need this process for fulfilling their

requirement of liquid fuel but the countries which are lacking of crude but have a good reserve of

solid fuel like coal, a large scale applications of coal liquefaction process is entertained. The few

countries, where this process is mainly running are Germany (during World War II) and South

Africa since the year 1960s. USA is also running coal to liquid fuel plant successfully. A plant

using more than six million tons of coal annually could produce more than 3.6 million barrels of

diesel and napththa. China has expended fifteen billion dollar for coal to diesel fuel conversion

plant with the aim of replacing 10% of its oil import with coal converted liquid oils by the year

2013. The threat of depletion of conventional oil sources is another major reason for renewed

interest in the production of oil substitutes from coal since last three decades.

Hydrocarbon type liquid fuels are obtained from solid fuel like coal by the following routes


1) Hydrogenation of coal

2) Solvent extraction of coal and hydrogenation of coal extracts

3) Refining of tar and oil obtained from carbonization of various soild fuels and oil shales

4) Gasification of solid fuels into synthesis gas and conversion of the gas into liquid fuels

and chemicals.


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The following block diagram (Figure 1) shows the options for coal to liquid conversion plants.

Fig. 1. Different routes of coal liquefaction

Coal liquefaction can be achieved either by direct or indirect processes. The difference between

these two processes lies in that, the indirect liquefaction process needs to go through gasification

first, while, direct liquefaction process involves producing partially refined synthetic oil from

coal. It is said by the technologists that, indirect liquefaction is more efficient than direct coal

liquefaction techniques which are currently available.

2.5.1 Direct liquefaction

Direct coal liquefaction was developed by Friedrich Bergius and it was started commercially in

Germany near World War II, to meet the huge demand of liquid fuel at that time.

Bergius process was modified and extended to fulfill todays demand of liquid fuel. The coal is

ground so that it can be mixed into coal derived heavy oil recycled from the process to form a

coal-oil slurry feed. The slurry containing 30-50% coal is then heated in a reactor to about 450C


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in a hydrogen atmosphere between 14-22 MPa pressures for about one hour. Different catalyst

used are tungsten or molybdenum sulfides, tin or nickel oleate. The reaction produces heavy oil,

middle oil, gasoline and gases.

One tonne of coal yields about one-half tonne of liquids. Processes have been developed to use

coals from low rank lignites to high volatile bituminous coals. Higher-rank coals are less reactive

and anthracites are essentially non-reactive.

The liquids produced have molecular structures similar to those found in aromatic compounds

and need further upgrading to produce specification fuels such as gasoline and fuel oil.

Direct coal liquefaction is suitable for a wide range of feeds:

high volatile bituminous coals

sub-bituminous coals with low ash

lignites with low ash

Direct liquefaction is of two types, single stage and two stage processes.

In single-stage direct liquefaction process, one primary reactor is used to get distillates. Here a

hydrotreating reactor is also joined along with the primary reactor to improve the quality of the

distillate. The technology developers are

o H-Coal (HRI, USA)

o Exxon donor solvent (Exxon, USA)

o SRC-1 and II (Gulf Oil, USA)

o Conoco zinc chloride (Conoco, USA)


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o Kohleoel (Ruhrkohle, Germany)

o NEDOL (NEDO, Japan)

Two reactors in series are used in two-stage direct liquefaction process. In the first stage, coal

dissolution is done where the process is operated either without a catalyst or with a low-activity

disposable catalyst. The heavy coal liquids produced in the first reactor are hydrotreated in the

second stage in the presence of a high-activity catalyst to produce desired distillate. The process

and technology developers include

o Catalytic two-stage liquefaction (US DOE and HTI, USA)

o Liquid solvent extraction (British Coal Corporation, UK)

o Brown coal liquefaction (NEDO, Japan)

o Consol synthetic fuel (Consol, USA)

o Lummus (Lummus, USA)

Among the different commercial processes, Exxon donor solvent process (EDS) and H-coal

process are discussed here.

EDS (Exxon Donor Solvent) process

In this process coal slurry is prepared using a recycled solvent and the slurry is mixed with H2,

preheated and fed to a simple up-flow tubular reactor. The reactor operates at 425-450 C and

2575 psig pressure. It is a non-catalytic process. The ligher product naphtha, a middle distillate

and a heavy distillate product are obtained. Heavy distillate mixed with some middle distillate

forms the recycle solvent. The recycle solvent is hydrogenated in a fixed-bed catalytic reactor

operated at 3700C and 1600 psig H2 pressure depending on the extent of hydrogenation, where


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either nickel-molybdenum or cobalt-molybdenum on alumina support is used as a catalyst. A

flow diagram of EDS process is described in Fig 2.

Fig. 2. Flow diagram of EDS process

H-coal process

In this process, coal slurry is prepared with a recycle solvent that consists of a mixture of heavy

and middle distillates obtained by product fractionation and solids containing hydrocracker

product. H2 is added to the slurry, the mixture is preheated and fed to an ebullated bed

hydrocracker, which is the distinguishing feature of the process. The reaction conditions are :

temperature 425-455C and H2 pressure 2900 psig. The catalyst used is either Ni-Mo or Co-Mo


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supported on alumina. The catalyst is fluidized by H2 and a pumped internal recycle stream. This

recycle stream contains unreacted coal solids.

Fig 3. Process flow diagram of H-Coal process

H-coal process is described in Fig 3 in the form of a flow diagram. The advantages of ebullated-

bed reactor over fixed-bed reactors are that, the reactor contents are well mixed and temperature

can be monitored and controlled in better way in the previous one.


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1. Fuels and combustion, S. Sarkar, 2 edition, Orient Longman Ltd., 1990.

2. Direct Coal Liquefaction Overview Presented to NETL, John Winslow and Ed Schmetz,
Leonardo Technologies Inc., US Department of Energy, March, 2000.