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    There's a Big Problem with the Newest Clean Coal Promise

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    A pair of Ohio State doctoral students show off coal and the iron oxide beads (right bottle) used in the new process. Via Ohio State

    Researchers at Ohio State have come up with a clever breakthrough in power production using coal: Rather than burning coal, the team has developed a method for chemically extracting coal energy. The upside is that released carbon dioxide is purer and thus easier to isolate and keep out of the atmosphere. Taken at face value, it's impressive work, but hype aside, it's still a long way from replacing any of our current coal plants. And even if the process goes commercial, there's no way to make coal truly clean.

    The process, called coal-direct chemical looping, was developed by Liang-Shih Fan, who is director of Ohio State's Clean Coal Research Laboratory. Instead of burning coal with ambient oxygen, Fan's cycle used an oxidized metal, like iron oxide, to provide oxygen for a contained chemical reaction. When coal and the oxidized iron are combined, the carbon in the coal reacts with the oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, reduced iron, and wüstite. When the reduced iron is introduced to ambient air, it essentially combusts, which re-oxidizes the iron and releases enough heat to power steam turbines. The cycle has fewer byproducts than burned coal, which makes carbon isolation much easier.

    Fan's team has used the process to power a 25 kilowatt experimental plant, and a 250 kilowatt demo plant is in the works in Alabama. The goal is to get a 20-50 megawatt plant running by 2020; for comparison, the US currently has about 316,000 megawatts of coal-powered production capacity. As we've seen in the biofuel world, a working experimental and demo plant is hardly a guarantee that a technology will be viable on a commercial scale, whether it's limited by costs or efficiency. But that aside, the coverage of the novel process glosses heavily over the biggest issue with coal: Even if we can trap carbon dioxide, we still have to put it somewhere.

    Fan's team argues that, by making released carbon easy to capture, it'll be easier to sequester. (I reached out for comment regarding sequestration plans, but I've yet to hear back from the research associate Fan forwarded my email to. I'll update if and when I hear back.)

    Carbon capture and storage has been an area of heavy research for some time now, especially at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which has emphasized underground storage of captured carbon. In an ideal scenario, carbon is pumped deep underground into stable pockets or in former oil and gas wells (50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide were pumped into old wells in 2010 to recover additional fuels) and sealed off, where it will remain stable for (hopefully) hundreds of years. 

    The NETL's 2012 carbon storage atlas highlights the work that's being done to look at the feasibility of carbon storage. Currently, the DOE has divided the country into seven regional carbon sequestration partnerships, which are currently working on small-scale carbon injection projects, on the order of hundreds to tens of thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide. The next level, large-scale projects are expected to involve at least a million metric tons of carbon each. That sounds like a lot, but it's still a hopelessly long way from the around six billion metric tons of carbon the US releases each year.

    No matter how clean-burning coal processes become, the coal itself still has to be mined, which is far from a clean process. Via Mountain Road Show

    If both tech like Fan's as well as secure sequestration prove feasible on a large scale–both big ifs, mind you, but not impossible–then we do have a scenario in which high-tech coal production could have a relatively low atmospheric carbon impact, which, for a coal-heavy country like ours, is a big breakthrough. But it will be a long, long time before either could ever make a dent in the fossil fuel market. That's an all-too-common problem with research in politically-charged arenas like energy production: The science is interesting, yes. But it's being sold to the public as if its positive impacts are here now.

    There's no hiding the fact that the research has a very key benefit of making coal look better even as the country becomes more hostile towards the current crop of carbon-spewing plants. That helps explain why one of OSU's press releases has an incongruously political quote from a research associate, who said, "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."

    Ohio was the 10th largest producer of coal in 2011, and thus has a big stake in convincing the climate-obsessed nation that coal can be clean. The research in question is funded partially by the Energy Department's Carbon Capture Program, which is aimed at developing new scrubbing and sequestration technologies. But it's also funded by Consol Energy, a major coal power producer, and the Babcock and Wilcox Company, which manufactures, among other things, steam boilers for coal plants.

    Now, it's not a surprise that representatives of an industry would be funding research in their fields. But they also have a huge stake in keep coal online, which, as the nation finally starts to take climate change somewhat seriously, necessitates the idea that coal can be clean. And while the research is promising, it's not commercial yet, something that's completely missed when it's used to support the false clean coal narrative. 

    Here's the truth of the matter: however promising Fan's work is, it's not commercially viable yet. But that hasn't stopped folks from gleefully using the research to try to confirm the false "clean coal" narrative. The biofuel industry makes for a great comparison: Biofuels are still finding their way to commercial viability on a vast scale, and right now next-gen production methods are more costly than alternatives. That means not even the Navy can have the biofuels it wants because the tech is too expensive, as deemed by conservatives.

    The same situation exists here: The new tech won't be as cheap as current coal plants, not even counting the immense costs of figuring out how to store carbon on a scale a thousand times larger than we're envisioning now. The boom in cheap natural gas, which has made huge strides in displacing coal power production in the US, is another massive cost hurdle for next-gen coal tech to jump. But unlike biofuels, this tech is being touted as the future while being used to justify the now.

    A coal slurry spill in Ohio.

    That's one of the disappointing aspects of research when it's packaged and delivered to the public: What's being discussed as feasible–and really, it's fascinating, impressive stuff–is hijacked as proof of the mythical narrative of clean coal. I'm not surprised that Fox News would frame things that way, but Ohio State's press department and its perfectly-packaged political quotes from researchers is turning the hype on a bit thick.

    The truth is, we're years away from sequestration projects that could even hold one percent of our yearly carbon output, and that's not counting the fact that we'd still have to capture and store that carbon. And even if Fan's tech works on a full-size plant, who's going to open one when it's guaranteed to be more costly than traditional plants? So, yes, there's now a process for clean coal, and the science is interesting.

    But that clean claim relies on the still-shaky premise that carbon byproducts can be sequestered and that it could even be commercially viable. Even then the "clean" coal promise is still a huge lie. For one, the coal still has to come from somewhere, which means mountains still have to be stripped and streams will still be flooded with heavy metals. And even if those promises come true, they're still years off, during which time coal will likely continue to lose its grip on the energy production market. So, yes, clean coal could potentially exist at some point in the future, but by the time it arrives, we'll already have moved on.