Could Legacy Coal Have a Clean Future?

Coal’s contribution to human industrialization cannot be understated; the fossil fuel acted as a relatively efficient source of power during the Industrial Revolution, making it possible to convert iron ore into iron cheaply. This affordable iron was key to the development of infrastructure, such as the Ironbridge Gorge Bridge, and provided raw materials for the machinery used in industrial-age factories.

However, despite coal’s role in humanity’s development, the fuel is a major carbon emitter and has played a major role in global warming. Most countries worldwide have now pledged to transition from dirty fossil fuels such as coal to renewable energy to cut carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

Mines across the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States have steadily shut down over the past few decades, and in most cases, the coal mines are abandoned as countries turn to cleaner energy sources. Stockpiles of coal waste from the use of coal have also built up over the years, resulting in millions of tons of waste that present a danger to the environment, workers and communities. This includes toxic metals that can leach into groundwater and end up in water sources or spontaneous fires that can release greenhouse gases and toxins.

Despite the danger coal waste presents, around 60% still contains viable caloric value and could be recycled in a process called gasification. The process involves introducing oxygen to carbon-based materials and heating the mixture to high levels reaching more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit in a gasifier. This creates a substance called syngas that can be converted into hydrogen in a process that produces less pollution compared to combusting coal. Hydrogen is in line with the Biden administration’s clean energy goal because it produces fewer greenhouse gases and could help the U.S. diversify its energy mix with cleaner alternatives.

The Energy Research Center (ERC) and Energy Research Co. (ERCo) have spent the past decade working on joint projects involving “crosscutting technologies” and artificial energy enhancements to optimize the gasification process.

A team of researchers and the ERC were recently awarded a Department of Energy Small Business Technology Transfer (DOE STTR) award for a phase 2 proposal titled “Machine Learning Enhanced LIBS to Measure and Process Biofuels and Waste Coal for Gasifier Improved Operation.” The phase 2 trial is intended to optimize the gasification technology (ML Enhanced LIBS) for real-life conditions and make it commercially viable.

Lehigh University researcher Carlos Romero, one of the researchers who received the DOE STTR award, says the technology may have applications in sectors such as cement and mining along with any other industry that involves feedstock characterization.

As the move away from coal gathers steam, coal mining companies such as Warrior Met Coal Inc. (NYSE: HCC) could also come up with greener ways to extract energy or other products from coal.

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