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Just how finite are fossil fuels? Send a link to a friend

[APRIL 22, 2005]  URBANA -- Illinois is sitting on a stockpile of coal. Rob Finley, senior geologist and director of the Energy and Earth Resources Center at the Illinois State Geological Survey says that as a state, Illinois has the largest supply of bituminous coal -- that is, a good grade of coal -- 211 billion tons of it. "And that only includes what we can access," said Finley. "It doesn't include coal under cities and towns that cannot be mined easily.

"We have already mined much of the shallow coal along the edge of the Illinois Basin, but Illinois still has enough coal to last us 300 to 400 years and not run out," he said. The Illinois Basin is comprised of two-thirds of Illinois and adjacent parts of western Indiana and western Kentucky. The problem is that we need better ways to utilize the coal in environmentally friendly ways, and along with that new technology comes a high price tag. "But, Illinois is progressive," Finley said. "We have one of the best state programs looking at coal development."

Coal gasification is one new technology being explored. Finley said that it's a cleaner process than coal combustion -- the method associated with many conventional emissions. Researchers are using gasification to remove mercury and sulfur dioxide pre-combustion. Coal is converted to a synthetic natural gas that can be used to run turbines to generate electricity or as a source of hydrogen to use in fuel cells for cars. With coal gasification, the sulfur is taken out before it is burned. Even the byproduct can be used. The leftover slag is a glassy substance that is used for roadbed construction.

But, because coal cannot be used in many transportation applications, oil is still our fuel of choice. And although gasoline prices seem expensive when filling up the tank, as fuel goes, oil is still cheap. As long as that's true, Finley said there's little incentive to develop alternatives like coal gasification. "And alternative fuels can't be produced right now in large enough quantities to be economical and make a major dent in oil imports," he said. "If we could produce 2 million barrels per day of biodiesel fuel, the cost to produce would go down. If we should have sustained high oil prices, that opens the door for alternative fuels."

In 2030 to 2040, Finley predicts that the world will be at peak oil production -- that is, of conventional oil. Globally, we now use 80 million barrels of oil a day. In 2040 the prediction is that we'll be at 120 million barrels a day.

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An equivalent barrel of oil is 18 inches in diameter and holds 42 gallons of oil. Currently, the United States uses 20 million barrels of oil per day, or about 25 percent of the world's oil usage. For comparison, 19 million barrels placed side by side would stretch all the way from Boston to several hundred miles past Honolulu -- over 5,400 miles.

Another thing to factor into the world-usage number is the tremendous growth in industrialization in countries like China. "As those economies increase, their demand for energy will be enormous and begin to pass us up," Finley said.

He said part of the problem is that we talk about the world's reserves of oil as opposed to what we actually have. "Reserves are what we have in the bank," he said. "We'll be making withdrawals, but we'll also be making new discoveries and putting more in the bank." In terms of oil, he says we have 43 years of reserve on a global basis, "and those are proven resources in the bank. Defining what total resources are out there is harder, because we haven't found it all yet."

Finley's message is that the sky is not falling. "We are not four or five years from the day of reckoning," he said. "But because fossil fuel is finite, it will be used up eventually. It will take hundreds of years to deplete the world supply of coal, and by then, the technical aspects of producing alternative fuels will improve and the economics will go down. We'll be able to rely more on energy from other resources -- perhaps agriculturally derived renewable fuels."

[University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences news release]

 

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