Coal & transport

Coal-derived fuels, as well as coal-based electricity, can play a significant role in responding to the growing energy needs of the transport sector.

Liquid fuels from coal 

The pressure to provide transport infrastructure and fuels is immense. Globally the ownership of motor vehicles has increased from around 250 million in 1970 to over one billion today. Coal-derived fuels and energy carriers, as well as coal-based electricity, can play a significant role in responding to the growing energy needs of the transport sector. Coal is also an important raw material and source of primary energy for the manufacturing of materials used to build transport infrastructure, such as steel, cement and aluminium. 

Liquid fuels from coal provide a viable alternative to conventional oil products and can be used in the existing supply infrastructure. Several coal-to-liquids (CTL) demonstration plants are being developed in China. CTL currently provides 20% of South Africa’s transport needs including 7.5% of jet fuel.

  • Coal & transport
  • Converting coal to liquid fuels
  • Electric vehicles
  • Resources


Converting coal to liquid fuels

Converting coal to a liquid fuel – a process referred to as coal liquefaction – allows coal to be utilised as an alternative to oil. There are two different methods for converting coal into liquid fuels:

Direct liquefaction

This works by dissolving the coal in a solvent at high temperature and pressure. This process is highly efficient, but the liquid products require further refining to achieve high grade fuel characteristics.

Indirect liquefaction

Gasifies the coal to form a ‘syngas’ (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide). The syngas is then condensed over a catalyst – the ‘Fischer-Tropsch’ process – to produce high quality, ultra-clean products.

Coal-derived liquid fuels are also sulphur-free, low in particulates, with low levels of oxides of nitrogen, providing local and regional air quality benefits in comparison to oil. Over the full fuel cycle, CO2 emissions of liquid fuels from coal can be reduced by up to 46%, compared to conventional oil products, if co-processing of coal and biomass is undertaken and combined with carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS).

International Energy Agency (IEA) data shows that CTL can be produced at a much lower cost than gasoline and, together with natural gas, is the only alternative transport fuel able to compete with gasoline even at very low crude oil prices of around US$60 per barrel (bbl).

Production costs of alternative transport fuels

Source: IEA, 2013

Electric vehicles

The IEA envisions the widespread adoption and use of electric vehicles over coming decades. According to the IEA’s Roadmap, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) should represent more than 50% of annual light duty vehicle sales worldwide by 2050. In fact, PHEVs are expected to be the most widespread form of sustainable vehicles over the coming decades, with estimated annual sales of 25 million vehicles in 2030.

Coal-based electricity has a role to play in supporting the electrification of the transport sector. With the use of carbon capture and storage, coal power plants could provide low-carbon electricity for the new generation of personal vehicles. In comparison to conventional vehicles, PHEV charged with electricity from advanced supercritical coal power plants emit 33% less GHG emissions and 66% less if CCS is installed.


Coal Matters: Coal and Transport

Coal Matters: Coal and Modern Infrastructure