A pair of MIT scientists have proposed a new method of extracting energy from coal that could potentially cut emissions from coal power plants in half.
In the wake of the Paris Agreement, countries across the globe have agreed to curb the output of carbon emission. The obvious method for doing so is turning to alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind. However, the reality is that coal currently generates roughly 40 percent of the world’s energy, and making the transition to alternative energy sources is going to be a slow one.
One proposed solution in the meantime is to make coal power plants more efficient.
MIT doctoral student Katherine Ong and Professor Ahmed Ghoniem recently published new findings in the Journal Of Power Sources that propose a new method for extracting energy from coal that could increase efficiency and cut emissions in half.
The new method combines coal gasification and fuel cells, two previously well-known technologies. Currently, most coal power plants simply burn coal, which results in roughly 30 percent of the coal’s energy being captured. Some coal plants, however, already use coal gasification by itself, which increases efficiency.
Coal gasification is the method of pulverizing the coal and extracting the resulting burnable gases. And, according to MIT News, “Fuel cells produce electricity from a gaseous fuel by passing it through a battery-like system where the fuel reacts electrochemically with oxygen from the air.”
In the ideal system, the two processes would exist in the same chamber, allowing the coal’s gas to flow straight to the fuel cell to reduce energy loss.
Ong was initially drawn to pairing the two methods when she realized that both occur around 800 degrees Celsius, meaning they could easily occur in the same plant without much heat or energy loss. Enough heat might even be produced by the fuel cell to support gasification, making things even more efficient. Currently, coal is burned simply to heat the process of combustion.
The new process, according to Ong and Ghoniem’s predictions, could result in between 55 and 60 percent of the energy in coal being captured. All things being equal, this would result in at least a 50 percent reduction in emissions.
Additionally, since no burning occurs in the process, little ash and other contaminates would be released, making the capturing and disposal of carbon — carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) — much simpler.
So, while the process is currently in the proposal phase, the technology theoretically holds the potential to drastically reduce carbon emissions from coal and aid in the world’s move toward overall carbon reduction.
For their scientific innovation and for their desire to transform energy production as we know it, we are proud to name Katherine Ong and Professor Ahmed Ghoniem our Lumiaries of the Week.
For more information about Ong’s new method go here.
Image Credit: “Cholla Power Plant, Arizona” by Craig Dietrich, CC License 2.0 via Flickr / “Illustration” by Jeffrey Hanna, Courtesy of MIT