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Clean Coal – An Oxymoron or a Real Possibility?
Can coal be clean? We have all heard the condescending advertising, listened to the biased politicians, and been overwhelmed with huge amounts of conflicting “expert” opinion and research data from each side.
Let’s start with the basics, “What is coal?” Coal is a sedimentary rock made up mostly of carbon, with varying amounts of sulfur, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and lesser amounts of many contaminants including mercury and other poisonous compounds.
We believe coal is primarily made up of plant material that has partially degraded, compressed and through this pressure and with time and other geologic forces been transformed into the many forms of what we refer to as coal. Some of these forms are Peat, Lignite, Bituminous, Anthracite, and Graphite.
The process of photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide into carbon, the conversion of the dead plant matter into coal sequesters the carbon in the ground. If we look at this in a very big picture sense, coal is the energy of the sun converted and stored. When the coal is burned, that carbon is released in the form of carbon dioxide. This could be a manageable cycle, however what is happening today, is that millions of years worth of this stored sunlight bound up in the form of carbon is being released in a relatively short period of time. This rapid release has overloaded the systems (the worldwide environments) ability to convert the carbon dioxide back into some stored form.
What can we do about this problem? First we must burn (or otherwise convert) this coal as cleanly and efficiently as possible. Large scale coal gasification and burning to create electricity will create fewer more easily managed source of pollution. These very large sources can be more easily forced to the use technology needed to clean the exhaust stream coming from such a facility.
Next we need to develop ways to reuse or store the Carbon Dioxide (CO2). There are ideas that would pump this material back into the earth either as part of oil pumping operations or into decommissioned mines.
I believe that we need to consider alternatives that would use some significant part of this CO2 to grow Algae as part of a closed loop energy system (See previous article on the Richards Cycle) or some other photosynthetic process that would convert the CO2 back into a safe storable (or reusable) form.
Coal can also be converted into high quality liquid fuel s (gasoline and diesel) through several processes. If we can create a more earth-friendly method of doing this, we could significantly reduce our dependence on and need for imported oil. While this is not a permanent solution, it would definitely give us a cushion while we develop alternative energy forms and strategies.
Whether or not Coal can ever be Clean, I don’t know. What I am certain of is that we can develop much cleaner, safer, and eco-friendly methods to mine and use this high quality domestic energy source.
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Last modified: 04/06/09
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