Unlocking a Hydrocarbon Arbitrage from Coal
For almost 100 years, the energy industry has struggled to find a cost-effective way to upgrade coal into oil. Coal has historically been traded at six times less than oil (on an energy-adjusted basis). Closing this value gap is the greatest opportunity in today’s global energy market, estimated at a staggering $20 trillion over the last 15 years.
Arq, a private technology company with offices in Lexington (KY) and London (UK), has risen to that challenge. Their commitment to producing the lowest-cost hydrocarbon products on the planet has now led to a major breakthrough. Using coal waste as their feedstock, they have developed a highly efficient mechanical process to liberate valuable hydrocarbon.
Their product, Arq Fuel™, is a new energy source which is ideal for blending directly into oil products without the need for expensive liquefaction. It transforms the environmental liability of coal waste into a commercial asset for coal producers. Arq also partners with oil distributors to stretch the barrel and increase profitability for oil refineries. End users benefit from lower-cost, higher-energy fuels with reduced emissions. This includes a low-cost solution to aid shipping companies to meet IMO 2020 regulations.
Arq is now moving into commercial development with plans for rapid scaling. They have built a coalition of market-leading energy firms to achieve this, including Peabody Energy and Vitol.
One billion tonnes of untapped energy a year
The world produces one billion tonnes of coal waste every year.
Coal producers face an increasing cost burden for tailings management and its associated social and environmental impacts. Yet coal waste can contain as much as 50 percent hydrocarbon, depending on the type of coal washing method and its efficiency. Based on the current volume of coal mined globally, this is the energy equivalent to throwing away five million barrels of oil per day.
The Arq team hypothesized that coal waste-derived hydrocarbons would be a suitable blending feedstock for traditional fuel oils. Historically, it has not been possible to directly substitute coal for oil, nor to blend it into liquid fuel oils because of the impurities typically bound within coal and the fact that it is solid. This causes the resulting fuel oil to fail international specifications and customer acceptance criteria. To overcome this challenge, the team began by determining the requirements to make a commercially viable product and have engineered the technology to deliver a product that is fit-for-purpose for the market.
A breakthrough technology for coal to oil products
By crushing and milling coal down to micron-sized particles, Arq’s patent-protected process separates out the impurities to liberate valuable hydrocarbon. The Arq approach is fundamentally different to previous attempts to transform coal into liquid fuels products. It uses small particle science and innovative technologies adapted from chemicals, minerals and food processing industries. However, it is a largely mechanical process, which requires less energy and demands significantly lower operational expenditure than liquefaction. The resulting product, Arq Fuel™, is almost pure hydrocarbon with an average size of four microns (i.e., 4,000th of a millimetre). As a coal replacement product, Arq Fuel™ burns as efficiently and cleanly as natural gas.
More impressively, Arq Fuel™ is also ideal for blending directly into oil products as the tiny particles disperse perfectly when blended into oil and take on the physical characteristics of a liquid. Extensive independent testing has demonstrated that Arq Fuel™ blends deliver substantially the same combustion and refining performance as traditional oil products, and without requiring any change to supply infrastructure or end-user equipment. It also helps shipping companies comply with IMO 2020 regulations on sulfur content by offering fuel components with <0.5 percent S. Arq has been granted a U.S. patent to secure use of their product as a blend component for liquid fuels.
Increased profitability for coal producers
Arq Fuel™ is also suitable for mixing with traditional coal fuels for industrial processes and energy to improve efficiency and reduce emissions. These quality products are the first available on a commercial scale and provide coal producers with a new revenue stream.
This example outlines how coal producers can profit from partnering with Arq to produce pelletized Arq Fuel™, which is a 5 percent ash solid fuel product, as opposed to the 1 percent ash product used to blend with oil products.
The combination of reduced tailings and additional low ash Arq Fuel™ blend stock allows for higher production, and a change in the cut point of the prep plant yields higher volumes of material with higher ash content. This can generate up to a 27 percent revenue increase and higher margins.
Arq Technology™ poised for rapid scaling
Arq is now building further partnerships with industry leaders who share their vision — that technology will be the catalyst for unlocking value in this changing energy landscape while improving environmental performance. The business recently closed its latest funding round of over $50 million at a valuation of over half a billion dollars. This includes landmark transactions with Vitol and Peabody Energy to secure the global supply chain for Arq Fuel™. The investments these industry titans have made in Arq and their commitment of long-term resources are a testament to their confidence in breakthrough Arq Technology™.
Construction of a demonstration commercial-scale Arq plant™ is nearing completion in Corbin, Kentucky. The facility is set to offer its first products to the market in 2019.
C.K. Lane is U.S. head of operations at Arq.