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Bixby Energy Systems promises fossil fuel revolution     4/27/2010 10:41:00 AM    ReadCount:1397

Speaking at SMi Group’s Gasification conference last week in London, Robert Walker, CEO of Bixby Energy Systems gave a presentation setting out an ambitious and innovative new technology, which has wide-reaching ramifications for energy security. The technology consists of a two-stage process. The first step, devolitisation, produces natural gas from coal via flash gasification at 1400°C in a oxygen-free environment, producing activated carbon as a by-product. Eight per cent of the high-quality (9000-15,000Btu/ft3) natural gas produced is used to provide the energy needed for the process. The second step, liquification, produces semi-refined crude oil from the activated carbon and low-cost hydrogen. The latter is produced by a new in-house technique from biomass/municipal waste and the system uses a plasma arc to vitrify waste materials containing sulphur and other pollutants into inert slag.

The company believes it can produce crude for less than US$30/bbl, making it look very attractive, particularly compared to oil sands and heavy sour crudes, such as those from Venezuela. Bixby Energy claims the process extracts 84 per cent of the energy from the coal, compared to the 38 per cent efficiency seen with a state-of-the-art coal-fired power station. This comparison is however, somewhat flawed, given that the process does not in itself generate electricity. Other advantages include the fact that while water is used in the overall process, it is not consumed and that it can make use of high-sulphur coal without the need for expensive scrubbing technology. 

In terms of the commercialisation of this new technology, it is envisaged that plants could be built near to coal mines, thereby eliminating much of the transportation costs associated with the coal industry, given the better economics of delivering natural gas and crude by pipeline, compared to rail.

The devolitisation technology has already been independently validated in a white paper and Bixby is in the process of shipping its first units to customers. A 200gal/hour liquification unit is expected to be commercially ready by January 2011. Bixby has received a US$152m order in the US for a demo site in Chelyan, West Virginia, as well as a larger US$1.3bn order from Canada for the production of ammonia, with building scheduled to begin later this year. The company also has US$12bn in orders from China, with construction of the first unit under way, with another 99 to follow.

If Bixby’s approach takes off, there would be massive implications for the coal and power industries. In particular, it would substantially reduce the appeal of carbon capture and sequestration technology, given that power companies would be able to purchase natural gas level emissions for the price of coal. It would also pose challenges to regulators, given that it would shift much of the carbon emissions associated with coal to the transport sector.