SwRI on forefront of clean-burning coal

August 29, 2016 GMT

San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute is leading a team that may help make the nation’s abundant supply of coal a clean-burning fuel.

The institute, a self-described “Disneyland for scientists and engineers” that has played a key role in the New Horizons spacecraft’s nine-year journey to Pluto and is a leader in the science behind autonomous vehicles and satellite-based hurricane research, on Monday announced it’s taking the helm of a $3.3 million project to plan an oxy-combustion pilot power plant.

The others in the project are: ITEA S.p.A., an Italian biotechnology company; Houston-based Jacobs energy; the Electric Power Research Institute; and Peter Reineck Associates, a British firm that specializes in strategic planning and marketing for chemical companies.

Oxy-fuel combustion uses pure oxygen instead of air to burn the coal and generate electricity. Since the nitrogen found in the air is not present, fuel consumption is reduced, which can make the process more efficient. The only emissions are water and carbon dioxide, which is concentrated and can be stored underground instead of being released into the air as a greenhouse gas.

“So effectively what you’re doing is you’re taking a coal power plant and you’re making it into a clean-coal power plant,” said Klaus Brun, program director for the SwRI’s mechanical engineering division.

The project is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. Its focus will be providing “a detailed design, specifications, cost and construction schedule for a 10 megawatt-scale combustion plant,” according to a news release. Building the plant will be a separate Energy Department endeavor, as will figuring out where to store the concentrated carbon dioxide.

Brun said there was discussion of pumping the carbon dioxide into underground salt domes, which have capacity for several hundred years worth of storage.

The Obama administration has had a rocky relationship with coal.

In February, the Supreme Court halted the administration’s move to fight climate change by regulating coal plant emissions. The regulations had prompted challenges from 29 states as well as dozens of industry groups and corporations.

The Energy Department’s integrated coal program has been funding research into ways to capture carbon dioxide, but current capture technology for coal is not yet commercially viable.

Coal “continues to play a role in powering the United States,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. “SwRI’s project will help take the nation’s use of coal into the 21st century.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country in 2015 had a coal reserve of about 478 billion short tons, which is larger than the nation’s remaining natural gas and oil reserves and, according to Brun, is enough coal to provide fuel for more than 250 years.

“The big picture idea is that coal is abundantly available in the United States and worldwide,” Brun said. But “nobody’s building coal power plants because it’s very difficult to meet the environmental regulatory hurdles. With this technology, you would be able to meet those hurdles, and so you could build coal power plants. It provides a clean-coal technology so it makes coal a viable fuel for power plants again.”