Ultra-clean coal Could the price now be right to help fight climate change?

A new chemical process for removing unwanted minerals from coal could lead to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations.

There is already a way of burning coal in a cleaner, more efficient fashion that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions: this is where the coal is turned into a gas and used to drive a turbine. However, problems with cleaning the coal before it is burnt have made generating electricity in this way very expensive. This new chemical process could make it more commercially viable.

Under development by a University of Nottingham team with EPSRC funding, the new approach involves using chemicals to dissolve unwanted minerals in the coal and then regenerating the chemicals again for re-use. This avoids the expense of using fresh chemicals each time, as well as the need to dispose of them, which can have an environmental impact. By removing unwanted minerals before the coal enters the power plant the new process helps protect the turbines from corrosive particles.

The aim is to cut unwanted minerals in coal from around 10% to below 0.05%, making the coal 'ultra clean'. Removing these minerals before using the coal to generate power prevents the formation of harmful particles during electricity production. To do this, the team is using specific chemicals to react with the minerals to form soluble products which can be separated from the coal by filtration. This process is known as 'leaching'. Hydrofluoric acid is the main chemical being tested. The chemicals not only dissolve the minerals but are also easy to regenerate from the reaction products, so they are constantly recycled. It is this aspect that has largely been overlooked in past research, but is virtually essential if chemical coal-cleaning is to be environmentally and commercially viable.

Dr Karen Steel of the School of Chemical, Environmental and Mining Engineering is leading the project. "A lot of research took place in the 1970s and 1980s to see if coal-cleaning was viable," she says. "The conclusion was that it was too expensive. With the environment high on the global agenda and coal certain to remain a key energy source for decades, it makes sense to see if the perception is still justified today."

If it proves technically viable and economically competitive, the new process could help ensure that world coal reserves are harnessed with less impact on climate change.

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(As part of National Science Week, EPSRC - the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - is highlighting pioneering energy research to assist global efforts to combat climate change.)

Notes for Editors
The new process could also help ensure commercial take-up of high-efficiency "combined cycle" power technologies, which have potential to deliver significant carbon dioxide reductions. A combined cycle uses both gas and steam turbines to produce electricity, with the waste heat from the gas turbines used to heat the steam turbines. By increasing generating efficiency, this reduces both the amount of fuel required and the emissions produced per unit of electricity generated.

In combined cycles where coal is gasified ('coal gasification'), mineral matter in mined coal gives rise to corrosive particles in the gas, causing severe damage to the turbine that generates electricity. There are two ways of protecting the turbine removing the particles from the gas before it reaches the turbine, or removing unwanted minerals before the coal enters the power plant. The new process focuses on the second option.

Coal gasification involves the use of steam to turn coal into the gases carbon monoxide and hydrogen. These are then combusted in a gas turbine, offering efficiency gains that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 30-50%, compared with conventional coal combustion.

National Science Week, which runs from 10th-19th March and is co-ordinated by the BA (the British Association for the Advancement of Science), celebrates science and its importance to people's lives. Held every year, it provides an opportunity for people of all ages across the UK to take part in science, engineering and technology activities. "Energy and Climate Change" has been selected as a key theme of this year's event. For more information visit: http://www.the-ba.net/Events/NationalScienceWeek/

The University of Nottingham research project "Development of a Process for Production of Ultra-Clean Coal" began in June 2005 and will run until October 2007. It is receiving EPSRC funding of just over 126,000. This is one of many initiatives worldwide looking into ways of using coal to generate electricity more cleanly.

Coal currently meets one-third of the UK's electricity needs and will play a key role in meeting growing global energy demand in the decades ahead. Identifying and deploying effective ways of harnessing it at acceptable environmental and economic cost is an urgent priority for the global energy industry.

There are two ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants (i) increase the thermal efficiency of the power generation process and so produce fewer carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity generated, and (ii) capture the carbon dioxide for long-term storage in secure geological structures. Both are necessary for fighting climate change.

At present, natural gas is the preferred fossil fuel for UK electricity generation as it gives a high thermal efficiency on combustion. However, gas resources are becoming scarcer than coal, so efforts are now focusing on increasing the thermal efficiency of coal-fired power stations to match the thermal efficiency of natural gas-fired power stations.

Carbon dioxide has been identified as the main gas contributing to climate change. Climate change is now accepted as a fact by an overwhelming majority of the global scientific community.

Potential uses for ultra-clean coal, apart from power generation, include production of heavy fuel oil, graphite and carbon fibres. Dr Steel's research has further benefits. As the chemicals are being regenerated, valuable additional products are made, e.g. pure silica a raw material used in the manufacture of a huge range of products such as silicon chips and solar cells. The ultra-clean coal itself also has non-fuel uses. As a raw material for manufacturing high purity carbon-based products, e.g. electrodes for the aluminium industry, it could act as a substitute for oil.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than 500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/

For more information, contact:

Dr Karen Steel, School of Chemical, Environmental and Mining Engineering, University of Nottingham, Tel: 0115 951 4078, E-mail: karen.steel@nottingham.ac.uk.

An image (ultra clean coal and silica.jpg) is available from the EPSRC press office. Contact: Natasha Richardson, E-mail: natasha.richardson@epsrc.ac.uk, Tel: 01793 444404.

Suggested Caption:
Extracting mineral matter from coal can enable it to be burnt more efficiently and cleanly. Here the treated 'clean coal' is shown next to the pure white silica which, amazingly, was present in the original untreated coal.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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