I recall a time when aiding the huddled masses was considered a fine thing. “Charitable giving” it was called, and it was the bedrock of an ethical society, a good life. Beginning with the gradual ascent of Homo sapiens, first codified as the Golden Rule, and peaking with the invention of “kindergarten,” establishing the moral reign of the “good guy” was considered man’s noblest moment.
Then came James Hansen. Up is now down, poo don’t stink, and withholding life-sustaining technology from those in the grip of famine is the new Renaissance. On March 26, Wired magazine — apparently staffed with this new breed of thinkers — induced seizures and ripped space-time with one MC Escher-ific headline and article: “Bad News: Scientists Make Cheap Gas From Coal.”
Ben Glasser, a PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, co-authored an article in last week’s issue of Science regarding his work on coal-to-liquid technology. When the cost of oil rises, it becomes a huge burden on certain countries that need to import the fuel. But a process exists to convert coal into liquid gas suitable for car and jet engines. It’s called the Fischer-Tropsch process. Cooked up by two German scientists in the 1920s, it can be a lifesaver in times when that process is more economical or politically stable than buying oil.
The good news is that the process works. The great news is that Glasser and his colleagues have made a discovery that tremendously revs up the efficiency of the process. This means cheap, cheap fuel for people that just might need it and have economical access to coal. Glasser helped develop a coal-to-liquid plant in China, where cheaper energy and openness to a degree of capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty. Glasser’s work could also be a boon to the U.S., where you can’t throw James Hansen without hitting a 50-year stash of delicious anthracite.
Wired’s take? Alexis Madrigal, one of the magical thinkers, writes:
Scientists have devised a new way to transform coal into gas for your car using far less energy than the current process. The advance makes scaling up the environmentally unfriendly fuel more economical than greener alternatives.