In Search of Cleaner Coal: UWYO Showcases State-Funded Research

In Search of Cleaner Coal: UWYO Showcases State-Funded Research

A coal pile in Anderson County, Tennessee. Dozens of Wyoming-funded researchers have been developing clean ways to burn coal, as well as the technology to convert the fuel into more valuable products. (Appalachian Voices/Flickr — click to enlarge)

by Gregory Nickerson

Amid regional debates over the construction of new coal mines in Montana and proposed export terminals on the Pacific Coast, the state of Wyoming is investing millions of dollars each year to make the industry more economically secure and environmentally sound.

For the past six years, dozens of Wyoming-funded researchers have been developing cleaner ways to burn coal, and technology to convert the fuel into more valuable products.

“The main goal is protecting and growing our state revenue stream. It’s very significant that we are doing this. No other state is doing it,” said Mark Northam Director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources.

Progress made by the researchers moved Northam to make an optimistic assessment of the state’s most important resource: “Coal will be able to compete in the long term,” he said.

The Clean Coal Technology Research Symposium showcased the results of the research at its second annual meeting August 23rd in Laramie. The School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming hosted nine presenters who made final reports on projects funded by the state’s Advanced Conversion Technology Fund.

Previously this fund was known as the Clean Coal Technology Fund until an April 2012 name change. Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and the Wyoming legislature created the research program in 2006 to protect and expand the market for the state’s coal.

“The Clean Air Act [of 1970] that limited sulfur created the market for Powder River Basin coal,” Northam said. “Now that there are concerns about CO2, we have to create technology that allows us to keep using it. That’s really the driver here.”

Overall, the fund has provided researchers with $36 million for development of low emission and advanced coal technologies. The funds came from a combination of appropriations and Abandoned Mine Lands money, and require a one-to-one match from outside sources. External matches boosted the total value of the research program to $80 million.

Each year the 11-member council that oversees the School of Energy Resources convenes as the Advanced Conversion Technology (ACT) Task Force, previously known as the Clean Coal Task Force (CCTF). The task force puts out a request for proposals, reviews grant applications, and awards money to 10 to 15 projects that seem most likely to reach commercialization.

Wyoming’s high elevation and high moisture coal make it less competitive for advanced conversion processes, which work better at low elevation with low-moisture coal. The ACT Task Force looks for projects that attempt to correct these disadvantages of Powder River Basin coal while capturing higher value for the resource through conversion to liquid fuels, hydrogen, and other products.

The symposium addressed all stages of clean coal technology, which generally works in three ways: 1) by altering unburned coal fuel so it burns cleaner (such as by removing moisture), 2) by burning coal more efficiently (usually by oxygen-enriched combustion), or 3) by cleaning up exhaust emissions from the flue gas, which can involve removal of arsenic and mercury, the reuse of hydrogen, or the sequestration of carbon dioxide.

Below are several the highlights of the presentations featured at this year’s Clean Coal Symposium. Two projects focused on the combustion phase of clean coal technology:

  • Alan Bland of the Western Research Institute worked with a team that built a 1-megawatt coal burner prototype. The burner can be retrofitted onto existing plants that burn Powder River Basin Coal, with the goal of achieving 90 percent carbon capture. The prototype uses the WRITECoal process, which burns low-moisture coal in an oxygen-enriched environment. The method is efficient because it recycles hot flue gases back to the first step of the process to dry out the coal.
  • Joseph Hartvigsen, of Ceramatec, performed research on a small-scale modular gasifier that could convert natural gas or coal to liquid fuels. Using a small prototype, they were able to produce 10 barrelsper day of liquid fuels from 100,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Such studies are important because they could be more easily implemented than large-scale gasification projects like the GE gasification project, which required capital outlays in the billions. Hartvigsen noted that the economics of gasified coal are compelling for Wyoming. We export coal at about $10/ton, but if converted to liquid fuel it would be worth $800/ton of coal, a huge value added.

Several other researchers discussed different techniques for handling flue gas:

  • Tom Barton from the Western Research Institute researched membranes that separate hydrogen out of flue gas. The hydrogen can then be used to produce chemicals. Different ceramic and metal filters were tested to see how well they separated out the hydrogen from the flue gas.
  • Barton is also  testing the viability of scaling up membrane technology to commercial scale. His team built a hydrogen separation system that could remove 2 pounds of hydrogen per day. WRI has applied for a $4 million Department of Energy grant to build a 20-pound per day system.
  • Larry Baxter of Sustainable Energy Solutions researched a cryogenic process that uses -130 degree Celsius temperatures to freeze the CO2 in flue gas into high pressure liquid form. The process also captures pollutants such as mercury and sulfur. The cryogenic process would require much less energy input than traditional CO2 injection sequestration, which could use up to 30 percent of electricity generated by power plants. The company aims to produce a modular prototype of their cryogenic condenser that could be taken to remote testing sites for trials in conjunction with experimental coal burners and gasifiers. Baxter’s company received a $2.5 million grant, which was doubled by a non-state match.

Guest speaker Fred Moore, formerly director of energy business at Dow Chemical, discussed the economic potential of combining a small-scale high-temperature nuclear gas reactor with coal production in Wyoming to produce liquid fuels. He estimated that a next-generation helium gas nuclear plant could convert Wyoming’s 1.1 million tons of daily coal output valued at $10 million into $600 million worth of liquid fuels.

School of Energy Resources director Mark Northam reported that the Emery Energy FlexFeed gasifier built using CCTF funds at the Western Research Institute campus north of Laramie is successfully operating. The facility is available for other researchers to bolt on their technology for additional tests.

In the race to develop new ways to use coal, the Advanced Conversion Technology Task Force tries to select projects with the best potential to provide a payoff to Wyoming, while acknowledging the outcomes are uncertain. “No one knows what the winning technology will be. Some won’t be commercially viable,” said Northam.

Also last week, the Advanced Conversion Technology Task force reviewed 33 applications asking for a total of $32 million out of an available $10 million in research funds allocated during the 2012 Legislature.

— Gregory Nickerson is a University of Wyoming-trained historian and writer from Big Horn.  He has worked on documentary films in Nicaragua, Yellowstone, and Philadelphia, and held jobs as a museum curator and hunting guide.

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Published on August 27, 2012

  • Bob LeResche

    Aren’t we special!
    I hope WyoFile follows up on this puff piece with some actual “quality Wyoming journalism.” It might analyze the “bang-for-the-buck” received so far from these state funds, the wisdom (or lack thereof) of trying to force square pegs into round holes, whatever happened to GE?, the disappearance of carbon capture and sequestration from headlines, and maybe even the probity of Arch Coal Director Freudenthal arranging to funnel so much state money into a program for the benefit of his industry.

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