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Clean Coal and the Alternative Fuel Cells

Updated on March 12, 2014

The Need for Clean Coal Technology

I became interested in energy when I read that the United States has enough coal to last the next 250 years. We have the potential to become the next Saudi Arabia of the world. So, why aren't we celebrating this tremendous potential? The issue is pollution. In round numbers, coal power plants produce nearly half the electricity produced in the United States. And carbon dioxide from burning coal is the biggest cause of problems with the climate. .

There is no time to replace coal with any alternative for generating electricity. As climate change worsens, energy demands that cannot realistically be met by any other means are on the rise.James Fallows writes about the inevitability of coal in The Atlantic, "Thus the bind. The atmosphere needs to absorb dramatically less carbon dioxide, while people around the world are certain to want dramatically more of the products and comforts whose creation and operation send carbon dioxide and other gases into the sky."

We have an abundant supply of coal, but burning it is destroying the atmosphere. There are advocates of many alternatives, but most people who look at the problem seriously conclude that clean coal has to be part of the solution. For example, a single coal mine in western Kentucky supports three-quarters as much electricity as all the solar and wind facilities in the United States. Source: Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, David MacKay

We are in dire need of clean energy, and clean coal has to be part of the solution..

Clean Coal Alternatives

Clean coal alternatives reduce carbon emissions in one of two ways - either capture carbon dioxide before it can escape into the air, or reduce the carbon dioxide that coal produces when burned. Either way, burning coal more cleanly is going to be more expensive than burning coal the old way, I am not qualified to recommend any energy policy, however I do think that we should have one. My goal is to help make more of us aware of some of the issues.

While we wait for a comprehensive energy policy, some companies are taking the lead in the search for clean coal alternatives. One example is the Summit Power Group's Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP). Without getting too technical, "TCEP will capture ninety percent (90%) of its carbon – more carbon than any power plant of commercial scale yet operating anywhere in the world."

"TCEP’s configuration and proven components also make it a “reference plant design” for the electric power and chemical sectors worldwide. TCEP will generate electric power through Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology while also producing other commercial products from gasified coal, including urea for fertilizer, sulfuric acid, and compressed CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the Permian Basin – all while achieving unprecedented carbon capture rates and minimal carbon emissions." (texascleanenergyproject.com).

What happens to the Carbon Dioxide?

Whether carbon is captured before or after combustion, something has to be done with it so it is not released into the air. TCEP will capture the carbon dioxide before combustion and sell it for other uses. The plant is close to oil fields and the plan is to use some of the isolated carbon dioxide for advanced oil recovery in nearby wells.

In other plant locations, finding a home for the isolated carbon dioxide is more problematic. All large-scale, and long-term proposals for storing carbon involve injecting it deep underground. The term for this process is sequestration. There are major efforts underway to develop the best methods of sequestration. Most of the work is being done in China where the rate of new power plant construction is far greater than in the U.S. American companies will be working with the Chinese to monitor progress on sequestration. Our two nations are the biggest users of energy and the biggest producers of carbon dioxide emissions,

The Direct Carbon Fuel Cell

Power generation has not seen the technological breakthroughs we have come to expect in other fields. While changes in some fields happen at lightning speed, power generation innovations happen at more of a snails pace. A company called Scientific Applications and Research Associates (SARA) is out to change all that. This company is experimenting with direct carbon fuel cells and the potential is enormous. The SARA website gets right to the pont:

There is an urgent need for a new pollution-free electrical generation technology that can efficiently utilize US’ abundant coal reserves.

SARA calls the new technology, Abundant Pollution-Free Electrical Generation (APEG). The process generates electricity directly from coal using electrochemical reactions. There is no combustion so there are no smokestacks. SARA boasts that APEG has up to twice the production efficiency of conventional coal power plants. The process captures 100% of the carbon dioxide emissions because the CO2 exits the fuel cell as steam without impurities. SARA has one patent on the technology with another one pending.

SARA has also developed a cost-effective solution to energy extraction from ocean waves. These are the kinds of ideas that can help bring electricity to millions around the world without destroying the atmosphere in the process. I am not suggesting that SARA has all the answers. I am looking for "game-changing" ideas and when I find them I will write about them,

American Electrical Power is one of the companies that has helped fund the research for the direct carbon fuel cell. Look for future articles on American Electric Power as well as updates on progress of the direct carbon fuel cell technology.

Note: Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air is a very informative book full of data on climate change and energy production. It is available for free download online. Just Google the title.

I also highly recommend this book by Jeane manning and Joel Garbon:

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