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Clean coal breakthrough made by scientists, a world 1st

clean coal breakthrough

Ohio State University researchers demonstrated a clean coal technology breakthrough by harnessing coal energy without burning it.

A groundbreaking discovery by researchers at The Ohio State University has unveiled a remarkable process that harnesses the energy from coal without burning it, effectively eliminating nearly all of the associated pollution. This clean coal technique, developed over 15 years with a mere $5 million in federal funding, presents a new approach to energy conversion.

Liang-Shih Fan, a chemical engineer and director of OSU’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory, explained that their team found a method to release the heat from coal without resorting to combustion. This innovative process eliminates 99 percent of the pollution typically generated by coal, which some scientists link to global warming. In 2010 alone, coal-burning power plants were responsible for about one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, totaling approximately 2.3 billion metric tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Clean coal breakthrough is led by Prof LS Fan
Professor LS Fan who heads the Clean Energy Laboratory at Ohio State University

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Clean coal?

While retrofitting existing power plants with this new technology would come at a considerable cost, it has the potential to significantly reduce billions of tons of pollution. Traditional combustion involves a chemical reaction that consumes oxygen, generating heat but also releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is both challenging to capture and harmful to the environment. In contrast, the new process developed by Fan involves heating coal using iron-oxide pellets as an oxygen source, confining the reaction to a small, heated chamber that prevents pollutants from escaping. The only byproducts produced are water and coal ash, with no greenhouse gases emitted. Moreover, the iron oxide can be recycled, offering an additional benefit.

Known as “coal-direct chemical looping,” Fan’s process has been successfully demonstrated in a small-scale lab at OSU. The next step involves testing it on a larger scale at a facility in Alabama. Fan believes that if all goes smoothly, this technology could be commercialized and deployed in an energy plant within the next five to ten years. The current tests have generated 25 kilowatts of thermal energy, while the facility in Alabama aims to generate 250 kilowatts.

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Fa's process can herald an era of clean coal technology for mines
Professor Fan’s process can herald a new era of green coal

Despite the potential of this technology, some environmentalists remain skeptical, questioning the viability of clean coal as a concept. Donald Brown, a writer at the liberal think tank Climate Progress, compared the notion of clean coal to claiming belladonna is not poisonous because a new, unproven safe pill is under development.

The Rise of Green Coal?

However, the Department of Energy remains optimistic, stating that the clean coal process could generate 20 to 50 megawatts by 2020, according to Jared Ciferno, the agency’s director of coal and power-production research and development.

The government intends to continue supporting this project and the concept of clean coal as a whole. Meanwhile, Fan is exploring the possibility of establishing a start-up company and licensing the process to utilities. He also has the potential to patent 35 different aspects of the technology. Other scientists and experts are enthusiastic about the prospects of clean coal technology, with Yan Feng from Argonne National Laboratory describing it as an advancement in chemical engineering and emphasizing the importance of addressing carbon dioxide capture and sequestration.

A representative from Eastman Chemical Company, a global Fortune 250 chemical manufacturer specializing in clean energy, expressed their support for innovative coal utilization. Dawei Wang, a research associate at OSU, highlighted the broader benefits of this technology, including promoting energy independence, utilizing America’s natural resources, preserving clean air, and stimulating job growth.

green plant growing near coal

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While the concept of clean coal has its skeptics, this breakthrough in energy conversion offers a promising path towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly use of coal resources. By effectively eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with coal, this technology could significantly contribute to addressing climate change while ensuring energy security and economic prosperity.

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