The greening of coal, the fuel of the future

The Globe and Mail: Neil Reynolds: August 27, 2009

The largest power company in Italy, with a significant global presence (95,000 megawatts of generating capacity), Enel SpA operates in 23 countries on four continents and serves more than 60 million customers. Once a state-owned monopoly, it is now a publicly traded company (though Italy's Finance Ministry still owns 20 per cent of the shares and Italy's central bank owns 10 per cent). Enel is a big fan of coal as a fuel of the future and has aggressively embraced the most dramatic advances in clean-coal technology - probably the best hope of breaking the malevolent grip of various oil-exporting dictators and thugs around the world.

Enel's strategic objective is zero-emission power generation from coal and it thinks it can get there with the kind of advanced technology first proved - theoretically - at the federal government's Canmet (Canadian Centre for Mineral and Energy Technology) research labs in suburban Ottawa between 2001 and 2006.

With further research work under way in its own labs, Enel has announced that it will now proceed with the construction in Brindisi, Italy, of a demonstration plant for what it calls the most comprehensive package of green coal-fired technology in the world.

Advanced clean-coal technology strips coal of virtually 100 per cent of its pollutants - sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, mercury, particulate matter - and preps these poisons, alchemist-like, for commercial use. At the end of the combustion cycle, nothing remains except ash, a product used to make concrete. It is a closed-loop system, operating without a chimney, and therefore emits nothing into the atmosphere. The theoretical model tested at Canmet captures the coal's carbon dioxide as a compressed liquid, ready either for sale to the oil industry or for underground storage.

Enel's demonstration plant moves clean-coal technology beyond theoretical calculations and marks the beginning of a new global green-coal industry. The company's basic premise is that fossil fuels, and especially coal, will have "a primary role" in the generation of electricity for decades to come - partly because coal provides the only realistic way to ensure a reliable, plentiful and cheap supply of power.

In 2002, coal provided 22 per cent of the power Enel generated; in 2012, coal will produce 50 per cent. By expanding its use of coal, Enel says it will be able to replace oil completely in its generation of electricity. In 2002, oil provided 45 per cent of this power; in 2012, oil will produce zero per cent. (By 2012, renewable energy and natural gas will generate 50 per cent of output.)

An early competitor will be Vattenfall, the big Swedish company (32,000 employees) that dominates power generation in northern Europe.

Last year, Vattenfall commissioned construction in Germany of the world's first "oxy-fired" generation plant - a technology that includes carbon capture and storage. (The "oxy-fired" technology intensifies the combustion process with blasts of pure oxygen; the Enel technology also subjects the combustion process to very high pressure.) Like Enel, Vattenfall has a reputation for aggressive use of clean-coal technologies.

But the United Kingdom can't be counted out, either. In June, the British government announced funding for four commercial-scale demonstration power plants - all coal-fired and all with carbon capture technology. The first plant will begin operation in 2015. In making the announcement, Britain's Energy Minister declared that clean coal would form an integral part of the country's industrial strategy, adding that the U.K. would "lead the world."

Meantime, England-based (though South Korean-owned) Doosan Babcock Energy Co. has begun construction of what it calls a "breakthrough" power plant at its huge science compound in Scotland. This project will include full-scale (40 MW) power generation and will feature specially adapted technology that the company says will permit retrofitting of old coal-fired plants around the world. (Dalton McGuinty, please take note.)

It's actually getting hard to keep up with advances in clean-coal technologies.

Last week, for example, Australia's University of Queensland announced that a chemical engineer named John Zhu has successfully demonstrated a technique that doubles the amount of energy that can be extracted from coal.

Last week, American Electric Power Co. announced plans to build a $330-million (U.S.) demo plant in West Virginia (assuming federal stimulus funding) for the production of clean-coal energy. The company says the commercial-scale project will be operational in 2015. American Electric operates perhaps the biggest coal-fired power plant in the world.

Last week, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory announced that they had developed an organic liquid that strips carbon dioxide and noxious gases from the industrial emissions of existing coal-fired plants.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it is using supersonic shock wave technology to compress carbon dioxide for storage purposes. (To move CO{-2} by pipeline, it must be compressed 100 times normal atmospheric pressure.) Using this jet-engine technology alone, the department said, could boost the useable energy produced in clean-coal plants by 10 per cent.

Not all scientific breakthroughs prove themselves. But it will almost certainly be technology - not taxes - that leads the world to cheap, efficient and green-coal-fuelled electricity production. It will almost certainly be technology that ends Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's alleged ability to use the threat of limiting access to oil to gain the release of a mass-murder terrorist.

The Future of Clean Coal

The Globe and Mail: Neil Reynolds: Updated September 1, 2009

'They gave us," says Ottawa research scientist Bruce Clements, "an explosion-proof cell." With its thick concrete walls and its steel doors, the cell is the perfect place for Mr. Clements and his small team of colleagues to fire up pulverized coal, blow oxygen at the flames and then subject the blazing fuel to very high pressures - eventually, perhaps, as much as 3,000 pounds per square inch. But the cell isn't fully explosion-proof. In the event of a significant blast, its exterior wall will burst outward, releasing the propulsive force of the explosion to the out-of-doors.

In part, it's this goof-proof cell that's keeping Canada in the scientific search for clean coal - a search that is accelerating in laboratories and demonstration plants around the world. With federal financing from the eco-energy Energy Technology Initiative (eco-ETI), Mr. Clements is able to advance his experiments in pressurized coal combustion - which will, in time, require a full-scale test facility. In the meantime, the team needs to determine what precisely happens when coal fire is subjected to higher and higher pressure.

Theoretically, the environmental and economic gains will be impressive. In hypothetical simulations conducted between 2000 and 2006, Mr. Clements determined that one early model, code-named TIPS (for ThermoEnergy Integrated Power System), would effectively cleanse coal of its pollutants and capture coal's greenhouse gas emissions, too. Mr. Clements's work on TIPS heralded a significant advance in clean-coal technology when he published his findings in 2007.

In his labs at CanmetENERGY, the government's research compound in suburban Bells Corners, Mr. Clements subjected TIPS to exhaustive analysis. Devised and patented by an American chemical engineer, Alex Fassbender, TIPS appeared capable of delivering cleaner coal than even its inventor had imagined. A Massachusetts-based company, Babcock-Thermo Carbon Capture LLC, announced earlier this year that it would develop the technology commercially. The company said the model produces clean energy from any "carbonaceous fuel" - coal, oil, natural gas, municipal waste or biomass.

Mr. Clements is certain of the eventual outcome of the global advances in clean-coal research: "History," he says, "is being made." Sooner or later, he says, "this stuff" - zero-emission clean coal - will happen. But history doesn't happen all at once. Breakthroughs of one kind or another are announced with increasing rapidity. More will come. But many breakthroughs fail when tested in real-world conditions.

Clean-coal research is now "a scientific conversation going on around the world," Mr. Clements says. He and Ligang Zheng, a colleague, have both lectured on clean-coal techniques at the North China Electric Power University in Baoding, south of Bejing. Notwithstanding its immense spewing of greenhouse gases - now three billions tons of CO{-2} a year, the most of any country on the planet - China has invested heavily in clean-coal research and is now building its first coal-fired plant capable of capturing pollutants and CO{-2}.

What role have Canada's scientists played in all this? "When scientists succeed," Mr. Clements says, "they usually don't know it." Science, he says, is variations on a theme - followed by variations on the variations. The researchers talk and they publish, bumping into each other at unpredictable tangents, like billiard balls on a global table. Even when they fail, or think that they have failed, they may well have succeeded - without ever knowing it.

Canada has made a serious investment in clean coal, appropriate enough for a country with a supply of coal that will last for many centuries. How much of an investment? In a speech at a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear put the federal investment at $1-billion. Some of this investment will be made in pure research, he said, some on turning past research into "commercialized processes," especially in the carbon-storage technologies that could contribute to an environmentally cleaner oil industry in Alberta.

These technologies will be important, Mr. Goodyear said, for decades - and will be very important in persuading U.S. environmentalists that Canada is serious about achieving a cleaner oil industry. But the more radical implication of clean coal is that it could replace oil, not merely make it cleaner. And it will be as a replacement for oil that clean coal delivers its greatest contribution to humanity - by weaning the world from its dependence on oil from dictatorial or otherwise dysfunctional states.

The Canadian government can be excused for concentrating research dollars in the kind of clean-coal technologies that support the country's oil industry - or, expressed in a different way, that (in Mr. Goodyear's words) "combat climate change." The first argument is economic; the flipside of that is the politics of climate change. But cleansed coal offers much more than this. For many countries around the world, it promises energy independence.