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Clean Coal

Clean Coal is almost an oxymoron, however America is the Saudi Arabia of coal which means there is a tremendous amount of energy stored right here within our borders, if only we choose to extract the energy from coal wisely. Converting just 5 percent of the U.S. coal reserves to liquid fuels for aviation would equate to the existing U.S. crude reserves of 29 billion barrels.

Coal to Natural Gas

Coal is quite willing to give up its energy bearing hydrocarbons and allow them to be converted into gases. Most Coal to Gas technologies produce syngas, but a number of groups are working on producing natural gas from coal. These developments, if commercialized, would allow the huge US reserves of coal to be converted into natural gas in an environmentally friendly manner.

In-Situ Coal Gasification

Mining coal has a tremendous environmental impact, so extracting the energy out of coal while it still is in the ground makes a lot of sense. Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) or the use of geo-reactors offers tremendous potential to clean up coal energy and enable economic access to stranded coal deposits.

The Coal to Gas Advantage

This emerging Coal to Gas technology tantalizes us with the promise of extracting the energy from coal:

  • cleanly and in a carbon free manner.
  • at the place of extraction and then being able to pipe that gas to the point of consumption.
  • without ever having to mine the coal out of the ground and by extracting coal's energy in-situ saves us from having to take whole mountains down with open cast mining techniques. 

Piping Gas is much more Efficient than Hauling Coal

Piping gas around the country can be done using the existing natural gas infrastructure and piping the gas moves the energy to precisely where it is needed for use in your home or business.

This is a much more efficient conversion system than hauling coal by freight train to a emissions belching power plant and then loosing massive amounts of energy transmitting that electricity to homes and businesses via the national grid.  

Electric Cars and Burning Coal to Charge Them

In the US there is sufficient idling capacity available overnight to recharge 75% of the US auto fleet if it were converted to electric drive today. Burning coal would enable the US to generate the huge amounts of electricity that would be required to power the 280 million vehicles in the American private transportation fleet.

The problem is burning that amount of coal at existing coal fired electric power plants to provide the required electricity for an all electric vehicle fleet would produce about 4 times the amount of CO2 than an equivalent gasoline burning vehicle fleet.

Using the Tesla Electric Car on a 100 mile trip as an example, approximately 65 pounds of coal would have to be burned at an electric power plant to provide the electricity for that journey. Burning 65 pounds of coal would release nearly 250 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In comparison, powering the Tesla with a gasoline engine instead would consume approximately three gallons of gasoline. Burning 3 gallons of gasoline would release approximately 60 pounds of carbon dioxide in to the air.

This means that the coal fired electricity used by the Tesla on that 100 mile trip causes four times as much carbon dioxide to be dumped into the atmosphere as the equivalent gasoline powered Tesla would on the same trip.

Clean Coal and Fuel Cells offer a pathway to an all Electric Vehicle Fleet

The possibility of converting the US's tremendous reserves of coal into clean electricity does however offer a tantalizing prospect of an all electric vehicle fleet without creating a CO2 nightmare:

This would need to be tackled in two simultaneous technology rollouts:

  • Coal to Gas technology offers us a way to get at the energy stored in the massive US reserves of coal in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner.
  • Installing large numbers of distributed, small scale Fuel Cell Combined Heat and Power systems (CHP) could then take that natural gas and produce the electricity and heat we need for our transportation and housing needs.

Coal to Gas, combined with the Fuel Cell over comes the "long tail pipe" and "CO2" argument against electric cars and offers the path away from liquid fuels and the internal combustion engine.  

(There is sufficient coal in the US for the next 250 years, so coal would give us just about enough time to figure out fission and its promise of unlimited energy)

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology still on the horizon

Hydrogen Fuel Cells have been held out as the silver bullet solution for powering our transportation needs in the future. The problem with hydrogen and its associated fuel cells is how to generate the hydrogen in the first place and then get that hydrogen to the fuel cell.

Solutions to these two problems are at best many years out, however natural gas is an excellent hydrogen carrier technology and the infrastructure is in place today. 

Natural Gas and Fuel Cells

The natural gas produced by this emerging coal gasification technology could be converted directly into heat and electricity using a fuel cell.

Graphic courtesy of Plug Power

The neat thing about a fuel cell is that it is able to convert the energy in natural gas at conversion efficiencies close to 80% for a combined heat and power installation, plus do so in a virtually emission free manner.

The Dangers and Possibilities of Nuclear Energy

There is a lot of talk about Nuclear Energy as it is a carbon free energy source, however the horrific memory of the Chernobyl disaster seems to be forgotten in this rush to re-kick start the US nuclear program. We still have not solved the waste storage problem and burying material in the ground that decays in millennia rather than weeks, seems a very hazardous and wasteful undertaking.

The sheer scale of the "going nuclear" undertaking is mind boggling as the US would need to build approximately 250 new nuclear power plants in addition to the existing 104 to enable us to shut down all coal fired plants. France has a very successful, large scale nuclear program, but this example aside I am very leery of the safety of conventional nuclear power and think it wise not to attempt to restart the US nuclear program in its conventional form.

We could use pebble bed nuclear reactors to replace coal fired stations and get a lot of electricity in CO2 neutral manner. Koeberg outside Cape Town, South Africa is just such an example of a pebble bed reactor and these designs of reactors are "walk away safe" as they are an inherently, passive safe design. These reactors are designed so high temperatures reduce power output by doppler broadening of the fuel's neutron cross-section. In addition, they use ceramic fuels so its safe operating temperatures exceed the power-reduction temperature range.

Ideally you would want to retro fit America's coal fired power stations with pebble bed reactors as all the associated electricity infrastructure is already in place at the coal fired sites. Combining Pebble Bed Reactors with solid state heat conversion technology is as close to "safe nuclear" as we are likely to see in the 21st century.

Nuclear Coal?

The irony of all this nuclear discussion is that there is more than enough uranium sitting around in coal fired power station slag heaps to build a lot of nuclear weaponry. This is all the more reason to use the energy of coal in-situ rather than bringing it to the surface and burning it in a coal fired power station.    


Clean Coal

http://www.coal-ucg.com Underground Coal Gasification Partnership
http://www.blackdiamondenergy.com Black Diamond Energy - CBM operator
http://www.cbmdata.com Coal Bed Methane - Web Portal
http://www.cbmfair.com Coal Bed Methane - Annual Trade Show
http://www.cbnga.com Coal Bed Natural Gas Association
http://coalbed.com CBM Association of Alabama
.empr.gov.bc.ca/Subwebs/CoalbedGas/ CBM - British Columbia
Coal Tek - Coal Pre-Processing
Ciris Energy - Coal to Methane
http://www.epic-power.com Coal to Gas
http://www.ergoexergy.com Ergo Exergy-Underground Coal Gasification
http://www.epa.gov/coalbed/index.html EPA Coal Bed Methane web site
http://www.fidelityepco.com Fidelity MDU Resources-Coal bed methane
http://www.gardesenergy.com Gardes Energy - CBM Directional Drilling
http://www.geometinc.com Geo Met - Exploration for Coalbed Methane
http://www.gastechnology.org Gas Technology - Des Plains, Il
Coal to Natural Gas
Laurus Energy - Underground Coal Gasification
http://www.lincenergy.com.au Link Energy - UCG in Australia
http://www.lucatechnologies.com Luca - Shale, Oil and Coal to Natural Gas
http://www.northernplains.org NPRC - Billings, MT - Doing CBM right
http://www.undeerc.org UND - North Dakota University Research
http://www.ucgp.com Underground Coal Gasification Partnership
http://www.westernresearch.org WRI - Coal Bed Methane Research
http://wogcc.state.wy.us Wyoming Oil and Gas - CBM Reports

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Atmocean - Ocean Tubes
Sugar based CO2 Sponge - Northwestern University

Heat to Electric

http://www.amerigon.com Amerigon - Thermo Electric Manf
BSST - Waste Heat reclaim
Calnetix - Organic Rankine Cycle
Ge- Heat Recovery (was Calnetix)
http://www.globalte.com GlobalTE - Thermo Electric Manf
http://www.highmerit.com High Merit - Heat to Electric
Hi-Z - Thermo Electric Manf
Infinity Turbine - Organic Rankine Cycle
http://www.marlow.com Marlow - Thermo Electric Manf
http://www.tellurex.com Tellurex - Thermo Electric Manf
http://www.tetech.com TE Tech - Thermo Electric Manf
mrs.org/s_mrs/doc.asp?CID=9285&DID=197719 Thermo Electric Conference SF
Colossal Seedbeck Co-efficient FeSb2
Phonic Devices - Thermo Electric
http://www.zts.com ZTS - Thermo Electric Web Portal

Walk Away Safe Nuclear Energy

http://www.atomicengines.com Adams Atomic Engines - Pebble Bed
http://www.nuclearcoal.com Nuclear Coal advocacy
http://nuclear.inl.gov Idaho National Laboratory
http://www.romawa.nl Romawa - Pebble Bed Gas Turbines
http://web.mit.edu/pebble-bed/ MIT's Pebble Bed Research Unit
http://pebblebedreactor.blogspot.com Pebble Bed Blog
http://www.pbmr.com Pebble Bed Reactors in South Africa
SSTAR L Livermore Portable Reactors

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