Heating fuel selection has become more than a casual topic in this currently tenuous economic situation, and likely to be an extended one. Unfortunately the picture is both clouded and distorted by the contemporary economic, political and media rhetoric. From an engineering perspective however the overcast is dissipating and the stars are beginning to show.

As Sgt. Detective “Joe Friday” (Jack Webb) of the old TV Series “Dragnet” would retort upon questioning a witness, “Just give me the facts, Ma’am. All I want is the facts.” So here they are.

From our Physics 101 Textbook: All physical matter exists in three (3) states: Gases, Liquids and Solids. Hold this thought.

Our Chemistry 101 Textbook was divided into two (2) Sections: Inorganic and Organic Chemistry. Organic chemistry is dedicated to the properties of carbon, and in particular the C-H (carbon – hydrogen) bond and its chemical interactions. It is so important as to warrant its own science. There’s Carbon, and there’s everything else!

Carbon compounds all occur in nature (typically in the earth) and in all of its states, as gases, liquids and solids. Due the energy content of the C-H bond they are all potentially direct heating fuels, or for the creation of other forms of energy, particularly electricity.

What differentiates the states of fuels is their “Energy Density”. (How much energy is contained in a comparable volume of material?) Therefore, as naturally occurring heating fuels they are: Gases: Natural Gases are the lowest density fuels, Liquids: (All Petroleum) Heating Oils are mid-density fuels, and Solids: Coal is a high-density fuel.

There could be another category of “Renewable Solids”, made up of surface harvested fibrous materials such as Wood, Peat, Corn Stover, Peanut Shells, etc. These have much lower energy densities, somewhere between gases and liquids. You might consider these as “fuels of opportunity”, based on locales.

None of these fuels as harvested below or above the ground can be directly converted into heating value without further processing. They must be economically converted and moved to their points-of-use. This takes energy in varied forms, depending upon the specific fuel attributes.

The Gases:

Natural Gas is by far the predominant subterranean gaseous fuel and can be directly combusted for its heating value. Distribution and safety are the issues.

Having no smell, a trace gas must be added to all fuel gases for detection. That “stink” is a life saver! Gaseous explosions are memorable ones indeed.

Natural Gas must be piped to its point-of-use. This piping infrastructure is large, extensive and expensive, supporting the movement of huge volumes of a very low energy density fuel over long distances. As a “distributed” fuel (similar with electricity) these costs are burdened onto your energy bill, typically along with service and maintenance charges.

Important Note: Whenever doing fuel cost comparisons, you must solicit an estimated billing for Natural Gas and Electricity Service. The “Per Therm” or the “Kilowatt-Hour” (KWH) fuel unit cost IS NOT YOUR FUEL BILL! Locally (NH) we factor (multiply) by 1.3 to 1.5 seasonally for an estimated billing.

Liquid Propane (LP), Liquid Natural (LNG) and Compressed Natural (CNG) Gases are concentrated, higher energy density fuel products achieved by chilling and/or compression of gases into a tanker or tank for distribution. As such these are now “delivered” products that are billed by-the-gallon or by-the-tank only.

There is a significant amount of energy required to transform gases into usable liquid products, thus a much higher unit cost. Delivery costs related to tanker-to-site-tank or individual “bottle” deliveries are also factored into the unit cost.

An on-site stored energy gas source must also be weighed, where applicable.

All gases can be combusted very efficiently utilizing the latest “condensing” technologies. These are routinely 95+%. It must be added however that the equipment investment is higher than alternatives and must be factored.

The Liquids:

Petroleum Fuels (Carbon-based) being liquids have an inherent advantage over their gaseous or solid cousins. They can be pumped, poured, piped, tanked or transported with less energy and at substantially less risk. Only bulk barging or training of coal can compare, and then only to bulk use sites.

Petroleum as extracted is a varying mixture of liquid and gaseous carbon-based products, readily separated by heating in a “Distillation Column”. Gases rise to the top and Tar sinks to the bottom. All are “skimmed” at their various levels. This is a relatively simple “first pass” process, but yields a ratio of products.

The C-H based chemistry yields more. By introducing selective products under heat and pressure you can “polymerize” (chain them together) to make denser, heavier products or “fractionalize” (break them apart) to make lighter and gaseous products. Very high yields of usable fuel and lubricant products result.

Heating fuels combust efficiently in a modern, atomizing power burner. Peak is about 87% efficiency, depending both upon the appliance and the composition of the oil itself. Natural contaminants such as nitrogen and sulphur preclude higher values. “Fluidized Bed” technologies promise higher future values however.

The Solids:

Our discussion of C-H based solids must necessarily be limited to Coal. There are two (2) major derivatives, namely anthracite and bituminous, but energy-wise they are arguably similar. Functionally they process and handle much the same.

Coal requires considerable extraction and granulating energy, offset by the low material cost in situ. It bulk handles and transits readily and inexpensively, but its combustion characteristics relegate it to large, continuous-fire applications. Thus it predominates in electric generation. It handles very safely as well. When have you ever heard of a coal train catching fire?

The Renewable Solids:

Referring to our prior mention of these predominantly fibrous, harvested fuels, suffice to say that only wood is regionally viable and a great “sweat equity” fuel. It is also a natural by-product of the wood-harvesting industry. To quote that old New England adage: “Wood warms you twice”. We don’t foresee any significant deforestation resulting.

Further, the quoted lower efficiencies for wood are aggravated by the necessarily long and moderately controllable firing cycles. It is truly a “fuel of opportunity”.

The Current Heating Fuel Situation:

By “situation” we mean what economical fuels are viably available and where are they located? The “what” and the “where” are inevitably linked.

By any measure the United States is most bountifully blessed with all resources, with the least being not only our current heating fuels, but also our future ones.

The near-term picture is punctuated by our excesses of natural gas that has depressed that heating market pricing dramatically. Despite the depressed economy a fervent effort is on to convert particularly oil-fired installations at all levels to natural gas, where available.

Natural Gas is so pervasive in fact that we are becoming net exporters of this fuel. The “World Price” of 4 to 5 times our domestic is just too good to ignore. It won’t hurt our trade imbalance either.

It is no understatement that “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) as touted in the technical journals is likely the most significant American Invention since the computer. The world energy picture is changing dramatically, for the good. This technology is applicable to both gas and oil exploration and production.

We currently have about 50,000 miles of fuel pipelines operating in the U.S. The current “controversy” over the Canadian Athabasca Tar Sands Oil extension known as the Keystone Pipeline will happen. It is in fact under construction at both termini. Several U.S. and one (1) Canadian pipeline(s) are being reverse-flowed to support both this and the new Greater Mid-West Fields. We are currently exporting some highly refined oil products to Europe from the East Coast. Delta Airlines has recently purchased a New Jersey refinery for its dedicated jet fuel production. (Smart move!)

Despite all of this activity, we will still be short of oil parity and subject, albeit in lesser degree, to the fickle “World Market” (OPEC). Upon reaching parity (in the next five to ten years?) the ball game will change significantly. To accentuate this point: The current price of natural gas (energy-wise) is equal to an oil barrel-price of $15, or a gasoline price of less than $1.50 per gallon. Will we get there? Unlikely, but we will be heading in that direction. The current barrel-price of $85 is expected to sag to $60 short-term, barring world influence.

Thus, the current and near-term heating fuel situation is substantially “business as usual” with a notable sag in heating oil pricing with natural gas applications expanding disproportionately. Heating oil may even cross over natural gas cost at best, as a delivered vs. a distributed product. Sharpen your pencils!

Coal remains in plentiful supply! Without addressing the EPA Regulations, etc. it remains a significant electric power generation fuel as well as a selective heating fuel. It is a bargain where natural gas is not available, if you can utilize it. Note: We are now exporting coal to Eastern Europe.

The “Crossover Fuel” Period: (the term is our own and at our risk?)

The disparity in natural gas supplies and pricing vs. the oil supply limitations and volatile pricing is going to breed an era of “crossover fuels”. These will virtually all be based on Natural Gas in both gaseous and liquid states as a seed fuel. It will be combined with other gaseous, liquid and solid fuels to create oil product supplements for the transportation and in lesser degree the heating markets.

This fuel availability phenomenon will precipitate a series of products within a relatively compressed time period. None of these are “rocket science”, merely scaling existing technologies as market opportunities are presented. The following are just a few of these, but the likely leaders:

  1. Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): As a potentially more broadly applied transportation fuel, it is a real winner. Currently being used in Utilities Service Vehicles, its logical and economic extension to all mid-range (up to 200 mi range?) fleet and service terminals (private and government) will have a major impact. The offset loosens up general oil supplies, including heating fuels. (This is also Billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ new pet project. He took an admitted $150M “hit” on now abandoned Windmill Projects. Looking to make his money back in a hurry we presume.)
  2. Oil from Natural Gas: There are several processes that can make oil from plentiful coal as well as lesser feed stocks. We are not familiar with the specifics excepting that plentiful gas next to plentiful coal seems to be a benchmarking enterprise.
  3. Alcohol from Natural Gas: Alcohol as a fuel has not been mentioned thus far. Its current notable application is as a beneficial gasoline additive. A C-H-O (Carbon-Hydrogen-Oxygen) Compound, its energy-density is less than oils, but burns cleanly and very efficiently. It is a superb racing and automotive (E85) fuel IN A SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED ENGINE! Ethyl Alcohol (Ethanol) is readily manufactured by process combination of natural gas and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. CO2 is that nasty (?) stuff that creates global warming (?). Estimated Cost: $1.50/gal.
  4. Alcohol from Coal: Referring to Items 2 & 3 preceding there is a proven, scalable process for producing alcohol from coal using natural gas. Estimated Cost: $1.50/gal.  Note: Alcohol is not currently used as a heating fuel. The cost and energy-density vs. heating oil has not been advantageous. Secondly, the current heating oil process equipment would have to be modified for its use. A diaphragm-style fuel pump or similar device would need to be employed for atomization. (Alcohols are not intrinsically self-lubricating.) Otherwise there is no process reasoning to negate its use as a heating fuel.
  5. “Fuels of Opportunity”: This is the Etcetera Bucket that contains all of those development projects that ultimately produce oils or alcohols. There is a seeming plethora of these with few in scalar production. Notable are the alcohol producers:
    • Corn Ethanol Fuel Supplements – Gasoline additives (E10, E15 & E85) production by farm co-ops and independents.
    • Cellulosic Alcohols – Produced from fibers and by-products of surface agriculture.
    • Oil from Coal – High Temperature/Pressure Steam Injection into Coal Process. No cost-to-benefit analysis available. South Africa produces.
    • Etcetera – The list goes on.

General Note: There may be a few winners, but a lot of losers in this alternative energy crap shoot. The Natural Gas glut will skew the results.

Summary Notes on Current Energy:

  1. Natural Gas will predominate, where available.
  2. The Oil vs. Natural Gas pricing gap will close, possibly returning to par over the next few years.
  3. LP (Propane) Gas will remain a “fuel-of-choice”.

Near-Future Heating Fuels:

Looking forward near-term in heating fuels is a simple matter. More of the same. There is nothing save the eventual Natural Gas to Oil Gap Closure to talk about. You must accept that common Heating #2 Fuel is close to Diesel Fuel and thus follows its pricing trends. (#2 Heating Oil is dyed Red to deter the Diesel Tax Skippers from using it in their cars and trucks. Fine resulting.)

The giant strides in efficiency made in the past ten years or so in heating appliances will be tempering. There’s just is not much more to be had in particular with gas efficiency to play with. Oil efficiency is fighting its composition problem.

Recommendation: If you’ve been procrastinating, waiting for that world-beater boiler or furnace to appear, don’t hold your breath any longer. Invest in that 95% Condensing Gas or 87% “Triple-Pass” Oil Boiler. Stop “throwing good money after bad.”

The Future Heating Fuel: Nuclear-Generated Electricity

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Electricity is the simplest and most efficient means of generating, distributing and utilizing energy. Problem is that we don’t generate it efficiently enough. We do a fair job with hydroelectricity and maybe geothermal, then we get loose. But even they are not really good enough.

Back to Energy Density. The C-H Bond energy potential is the basis for all of our fuels. The energy-density of a Nuclear Fuel is 10 to the 6th power or 1,000,000 times that of the C-H Bond! So why don’t we have cheap enough electricity?

The wrong nuclear technology. We developed and then abandoned the correct one in the 1970’s in favor of uranium and plutonium based processes – to build bombs with their by-products.

Thorium Reactors are being aggressively developed by Russia, China and India, with our technology! We must have them to project our NASA Deep Space Programs and as a DOD Modular Power Source at least. We’re looking at electricity costs of $0.02-0.03 (cents) per KWH! Check your current electric bill.

For your Homework, read up on Thorium. It’s our future.

Last Edit: 10/10/2012 pdm