Could ‘Clean Coal’ Finally Live up to Its Name?

An experimental new technology captures more than 99 percent of the carbon dioxide from burning coal

Long considered a misnomer, "clean coal" could finally become a reality thanks to a new technology from Ohio State University researchers (© Roger Ressmeyer / CORBIS)
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Not long ago, the phrase “clean coal” seemed like an oxymoron. Coal-fired power plants emit a witch’s brew of air pollutants that, unless it is removed with scrubbers, tarnishes the air, creates acid rain and can cause asthma or heart attacks. And coal plants emit twice the planet-heating carbon dioxide of natural-gas-fired power plants.

A new type of reactor, however, one that captures more than 99 percent of the carbon dioxide generated by burning coal, could make “clean coal” feasible. Carbon dioxide can be stowed safely beneath the earth’s surface where it can’t contribute to climate change.

This reactor would capture carbon without jacking up the price of electricity, and this could make it commercially viable. “It’s an entirely new way to generate power from coal that’s low-carbon,” says Karma Sawyer who directs the clean-coal research program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) research agency ARPA-E, which funded the work.

Burning coal is responsible for producing about 40 percent of the world’s electricity, but it produces three-fourths of the more than 12 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted during electricity and heat generation. To make coal nonpolluting, that carbon dioxide would have to be captured before it’s emitted and permanently locked away under the earth. But despite years of research, not one of the coal-fired power plants in the United States does this. 

Nevertheless, coal-fired power plants still supply much of the world’s electricity, and coal reserves in the U.S. and elsewhere remain plentiful and affordable. For these reasons--and because of the coal industry’s political clout--the DOE has invested more than $3.4 billion toward carbon-capture and storage technologies.

Today’s most advanced carbon-capture technology, called amine scrubbing, is effective and mature, but it’s too expensive. In amine scrubbing, named after the alkylamines used in the process, coal is first burned the usual way, with air, and the resulting flue gas bubbles through a liquid that traps the carbon dioxide. Then the liquid is heated to release the carbon dioxide, which escapes much as a cool can of soda emits carbon dioxide bubbles as it warms to room temperature. This process sucks up almost one-third of the energy produced by the entire power plant--enough to warrant an 80 percent price hike for consumers. Such a spike in cost is untenable, so utilities have shied away from installing such scrubbers.

A few years ago, the DOE challenged researchers to devise a technology that could remove more than 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by a plant, while keeping the price of coal-powered electricity from a conventional plant from rising more than 35 percent to date. So far the DOE has invested in research on more than a dozen experimental carbon-removal technologies. “There’s no silver bullet yet, which is why we have a big program,” says Lynn Brickett, division director of the Existing Plants Division of the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

One of the most promising new technologies starts with pulverized coal, a dry mix the consistency of talcum powder that’s already burned in many coal-fired power plants. The pulverized coal is mixed with partially rusted iron particles the size of ice cream sprinkles inside a hot reactor at 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit. The coal-iron mixture undergoes a chemical reaction that removes the rust and produces carbon dioxide and steam, which is then cooled and liquid water condenses out, leaving a highly purified stream of carbon dioxide.

The rust-free iron particles then move to a second reactor, where they are burned under air, causing them to rust again. This rusting reaction produces enough heat to boil water, and the resulting steam drives an electricity-producing turbine. 

The carbon-capturing material does not need to be separately heated to liberate pure carbon dioxide, as it does in amine scrubbing, and for that reason “the capture energy requirements are almost negligible,” explains Liang-Shih Fan, the Ohio State University chemical engineer who spearheaded this research.

Byproducts of the technique can be repurposed, providing additional cost-effectiveness. The pure carbon dioxide stream can be sold to oil producers, who can inject it into mostly spent wells to enable the extraction of valuable but hard-to-gather last bits of oil.  The process can also be tweaked to produce pure hydrogen in addition to electricity and carbon dioxide, and that hydrogen can be burned cleanly for electricity or sold as a feedstock for industrial chemical production.

“Fan’s work at Ohio State is the only process in the world that can enable all three of these [electricity, carbon dioxide and hydrogen] to be produced separately,” Sawyer says.

The engineers left themselves other options as well. A few tweaks to the reactor design enable it to function at coal gasification plants, a new type of power plant that partially burns coal to make synthetic natural gas, or syngas, then burns the syngas to make electricity. Although only two large coal-gasification plants are under construction in the United States right now—in Mississippi and Indiana—experts predict that many future coal plants will use the technology.

Fan and his colleagues recently built a laboratory-scale pilot reactor on the Ohio State campus, and in February they reported running it for nine days. That may not seem like a long time, but it’s the longest run ever for this type of carbon-capture technology. And the reactor removed more than 99 percent of the carbon dioxide produced. 

Despite the success, the new technology has many hurdles to jump before it could be used commercially. The reactor has to pass a large-scale test with real power-plant flue gas, which has contaminants that might damage metal reactor parts, for example, and it has to hold up to years of high-temperature, high-pressure operations. 

Such a test is underway for the team’s syngas looping technology. The Ohio State engineers teamed with a half dozen companies that make supplies or parts for coal-fired power plants to build a $14-million, six-story, 250-kilowatt pilot plant at the DOE’s National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville, Alabama. This test reactor will run on syngas produced at a demonstration-scale coal-gasification plant run by Southern Company at the center, and it will run at the high temperatures and high pressures typical of commercial plants. (Disclosure: Southern Company is advertiser on Smithsonian.com, but this story was independently commissioned.) “We’re testing very commercially applicable conditions,” says Andrew Tong, a researcher in Fan’s group who’s helping to coordinate the test run.

Even if the effort is successful, more pilot tests would be needed because an actual coal-fired power plant is about 1,000 times larger than the planned Alabama pilot plant. The Ohio State technology “still has a long way to go to generate electricity in a commercial coal- or natural-gas-fired power plant,” Sawyer says.

Should the technology prove successful on a large scale and prove able to remove all the carbon dioxide and air pollutants from burning coal, chemical-looping reactors would still not be the cleanest, cheapest or healthiest way to produce electricity. Coal miners die of black lung disease and mine collapses, and entire mountain ranges are decapitated to mine coal. Even clean coal produces ash that piles up in storage ponds or landfills, threatening groundwater and rivers with pollution. When health and environmental costs are factored in, renewables like wind and solar remain cheaper.

But with seven billion people hungry for cheap energy and coal-fired power plants belching millions of tons of planet-baking gas into the atmosphere each day, new ways to burn coal cleanly can’t be neglected. “You have to find something that can handle all the challenges,” Sawyer says. “That’s why these projects are so exciting.”

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