A new technology unveiled by researchers at Ohio State University could be a game changer for coal. If the techniques developed by Liang-Shih Fan, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of Ohio State’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory can be made scalable they have the potential to create energy from coal without burning the coal and releasing harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The new process called coal-direct chemical looping uses chemical combustion rather than fire to extract energy from coal. The typical process for converting coal to energy relies on burning it using oxygen in the air. The resulting combustion creates both heat and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is difficult to capture. Coal-direct chemical looping still produced carbon dioxide but does so in a why that allows 99% of the carbon dioxide produced in the process to be captured without escaping into the atmosphere.
The new process has shown promise on a small scale. It has been used successfully to produce 25 kilowatts of power in an experiment plant. There are plans to build a 250 killowatt demo plant in Alabama at the Department of Energy’s U.S. National Carbon Capture Center.
The Energy Department’s Carbon Capture Program provides some of the funding for the research as does energy companies with an interest in developing cleaner coal technologies such as Consol Energy and Babcock and Wilcox Company.
The coal industry has been under pressure in recent years due to aggressive new rules being pushed by the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as stiff competition from the natural gas industry. Because new drilling techniques have made natural gas both cheap and suddenly abundant, it has become the fuel of choice for producing electricity.
In places like Texas, natural gas and wind have grown as a percentage of the electricity portfolio almost exclusively at the cost of coal. Wholesale electricity rates in Texas have become so cheap because of natural gas that energy producers are loath to invest in new coal power plants.
A revolutionary approach like the one promised by the team at Ohio State could be the shot in the arm coal needs. However, any wide scale application of the new technology is along way off and far from certain.