Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Clean coal: put that in your stack and smoke it

It was about a year ago that Mattoon was on the brink of becoming the epicentre of advanced coal research with the awarding of the giant Futuregen project to that small burg somewhere off I-57, close to the home of Eastern Illinois University. Parents, do your children a favor by not ruining their college years by sending them there.

Although Dulcie informs that I was incorrect in remembering there to be a Sonic burger place, I must have been confusing it with St. Louis (easily done), the lone restaurant near the interstate exit, whatever it was, defined fine dining in that area. Rightly or wrongly, and that is a debate rich in nuance, Mattoon's glory was short-lived as Futuregen got slashed a few weeks later as being too expensive.

For my loyal readers unfamiliar with Futuregen, it is/was an ambitious project aimed at developing carbon-free emissions in a coal-fired power station. Since almost all the energy from the combustion of coal involves converting carbon into carbon dioxide, this is a mighty problem. Coal is almost all carbon; whereas natural gas, methane (CH4) has four hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom, so energy from burning the latter comes from both creation of CO2 (bad) and H2O (not bad). Fans of alternative energy sources are largely opposed to any research on improving coal. The trouble is, there's lots of it and, for several decades, no conceivable way that the non-carbon alternatives will replace it.

Earlier this week, an advanced emissionless power plant, much smaller than the one proposed in Futuregen, was unveiled in Germany (the former East Germany as people are still wont to say). It is fairly amazing that this idea really has practical and economic utility, but perhaps it does. For one thing, the coal must be burned in pure oxygen rather than air (only 21 % oxygen) to ensure complete conversion into CO2. All this CO2 must then be captured in the exhaust. It is then pressurized, liquefied, and stored in tanks for later disposal. The current design has the tanks being transported for injection underground at another location. This is the equally improbable-sounding carbon sequestration where, instead of releasing the CO2 into the atmosphere (bad), it is pumped deep underground where it will happily live ever after in the seams of some old mine or something.

Compare all that effort with simply taking a lump of coal and burning it, and you have to wonder how it can be cost-effective. Then consider the logistics of converting every single coal-fired power station to this kind of process. Bear in mind that the infrastructure of capturing, transporting and sequestering mammoth quantities of CO2 is yet to be developed. Bear in mind also that new power stations are popping up in India and China like mushrooms in the Morton Arboretum in the damp fall weather.

The enormity of the problem of eliminating carbon from the energy game is so massive that it seems that all solutions are pointless. It will never be a question that one approach is the way. However, if all of the myriad approaches using various renewables, sustainables, bio-this's and thats, futuristic clean coal, and even including the nuke (nukular in the GOP parlance), are all applied, then a difference can be made, over time and with monumental investment at the government level. If all the money frittered away in the pathetically wrong-headed attempt to impose "democracy" on a unwilling foreign country, much of which ended up in the pockets of the president's pals, was focused on developing those sources, think where we might be now. Maybe Mattoon would have become more than just a one-burger town.

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