A New Development in Clean Coal Technology

Emerson’s Alan Novak, who leads the alternative energy industry team, explores the advancements in coal conversion technology in today’s guest post.

Emerson's Alan NovakResearchers at Ohio State University recently announced that they reached a new milestone in the development of their Coal-Direct Chemical Looping (CDCL) clean coal process. They were able to operate a research-scale version of the process for 203 continuous hours while simultaneously generating heat and capturing approximately 99 percent of the CO2 produced.

Source: ScienceDirect – Coal-Direct Chemical Looping Process

With all of the news around abundant US supplies of natural gas (thanks to shale gas and hydraulic fracturing) why is there still interest in clean coal technologies?

The short answer is that coal remains abundant and cheap, with the majority of the world’s supply located in the US.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration – United States leads world in coal reserves

The primary use for coal is power generation, where it competes with natural gas and oil. As the following chart indicates, the relative price of each of these feedstocks can lead to shifts in the power generation market.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration – Competition among fuels for power generation driven by changes in fuel prices

Natural Gas can be used in a variety of processes, and a number of factors other than US electricity demand can have an impact on its price. A recent report by consultancy ATKearney highlights potential scenarios for future gas prices, some of which put coal-fired power generation back in a favorable economic position.

Source: ATKearney – Natural gas 2020 price scenarios

Given the uncertainty of long-term natural gas prices, we may see a future need for coal-based power generation technologies (such as CDCL) which can be built under current US environmental guidelines.

While Ohio State’s CDCL technology looks promising, new energy technologies can encounter significant challenges when moving from bench to pilot to commercial scale. Successful construction and operation of Ohio State’s planned pilot plant will be an important next step for this technology.

Will Chemical Looping technology provide a boost to the US coal industry and be the next big thing in energy production? Only time will tell.

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