From James Hansen’s, Bill McKibben’s and Joe Romm’s worst nightmare department, comes this uplifting science story from the Ohio State University. Basically they found a way to oxidize coal and extract energy without releasing any CO2.
When a team of Ohio State students worked around the clock for nine days straight recently, they weren’t pulling the typical college “all-nighters.”
Instead, they were reaching a milestone in clean coal technology.
For 203 continuous hours, they operated a scaled-down version of a power plant combustion system with a unique experimental design–one that chemically converts coal to heat while capturing 99 percent of the carbon dioxide produced in the reaction.
This new technology, called coal-direct chemical looping, was pioneered by Liang-Shih Fan, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of Ohio State’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory. (Fan is a Distinguished University Professor and a 2012 Innovator of the Year.)
Typical coal-fired power plants burn coal to heat water to make steam, which turns the turbines that produce electricity. In chemical looping, the coal isn’t burned with fire, but instead chemically combusted in a sealed chamber so that it doesn’t pollute the air. A second combustion unit in the lab does the same thing with coal-derived syngas, and both produce 25 thermal kilowatts of energy.
“In the simplest sense, combustion is a chemical reaction that consumes oxygen and produces heat,” Fan says. “Unfortunately, it also produces carbon dioxide, which is difficult to capture and bad for the environment. So we found a way to release the heat without burning.”
Dawei Wang, a research associate and one of the group’s team leaders, says the technology’s potential benefits go beyond the environment: “The plant could really promote our energy independence. Not only can we use America’s natural resources such as Ohio coal, but we can keep our air clean and spur the economy with jobs.”
The researchers are about to take the technology to the next level: a pilot plant is under construction at the U.S. Department of Energy‘s National Carbon Capture Center. Set to begin operations in late 2013, that plant will produce 250 thermal kilowatts using syngas. Tests there will set the stage for future commercial development.
“At Ohio State, with a team of creative minds, we can take a technological concept closer to real commercial use,” Wang says.
The technology looks promising: as doctoral student Elena Chung explained, the 203-hour experiment could have continued even longer.
“We voluntarily chose to stop the unit. Honestly, it was a mutual decision by Dr. Fan and the students. It was a long and tiring week where we all shared shifts,” she says.
Fan’s students were thrilled to be involved in this breakthrough, even if they did lose some sleep.
“Ohio State has been very supportive of our research efforts,” Fan says. The result of the university’s backing? A place, he says, where “brilliant invention and cutting-edge research can be successful and progressive.”
“In the simplest sense, combustion is a chemical reaction that consumes oxygen and produces heat,” Fan said. “Unfortunately, it also produces carbon dioxide, which is difficult to capture and bad for the environment. So we found a way to release the heat without burning. We carefully control the chemical reaction so that the coal never burns—it is consumed chemically, and the carbon dioxide is entirely contained inside the reactor.”
Dawei Wang, a research associate and one of the group’s team leaders, described the technology’s potential benefits. “The commercial-scale CDCL plant could really promote our energy independence. Not only can we use America’s natural resources such as Ohio coal, but we can keep our air clean and spur the economy with jobs,” he said.
“We carefully control the chemical reaction so that the coal never burns—it is consumed chemically, and the carbon dioxide is entirely contained inside the reactor.”
Though other laboratories around the world are trying to develop similar technology to directly convert coal to electricity, Fan’s lab is unique in the way it processes fossil fuels. The Ohio State group typically studies coal in the two forms that are already commonly available to the power industry: crushed coal “feedstock,” and coal-derived syngas.
The latter fuel has been successfully studied in a second sub-pilot research-scale unit, through a similar process called Syngas Chemical Looping (SCL). Both units are located in a building on Ohio State’s Columbus campus, and each is contained in a 25-foot-high insulated metal cylinder that resembles a very tall home water heater tank.
No other lab has continuously operated a coal-direct chemical looping unit as long as the Ohio State lab did last September. But as doctoral student Elena Chung explained, the experiment could have continued.
“We voluntarily chose to stop the unit. We actually could have run longer, but honestly, it was a mutual decision by Dr. Fan and the students. It was a long and tiring week where we all shared shifts,” she said.
Joe Romm of course can’t yet bring himself to carry this story over at Climate Progress, but Fox News used an old quote from one of CP’s nuttiest professors, yes our old friend Donald Brown, who says:
“Claiming that coal is clean because it could be clean — if a new technically unproven and economically dubious technology might be adopted — is like someone claiming that belladonna is not poisonous because there is a new unproven safe pill under development,” wrote Donald Brown at liberal think tank Climate Progress.
Heh. Read more here: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/02/20/coal-cleanest-energy-source-there-is/
Rational people would of course embrace such news positively. But of course, we aren’t dealing with rational people at Climate Progress, or at 350.org, so I don’t expect them or James Hansen to be happy about this development.