Friday, August 28, 2009

Can coal make electricity without being burned?

A group of researchers and companies are working to develop technology that may solve the "clean coal" conundrum. Some skeptics of clean coal say the only way to create clean coal is to stop burning it, and Jessica Leber of Climate Wire writes for The New York Times reports that some researchers believe they can do just that. These scientists are working with "direct carbon" fuel cells (DCFCs) to produce electricity directly from the carbon source by potentially using half the coal burned today.

Dan Raster, energy-storage manager for the utility-funded Electric Power Research Institute, acknowledged to Leber that major hurdles exist to developing DCFC technology, but he thinks it will provide an "attractive option to electric utilities that need to reduce their carbon emissions." DCFCs "convert carbon sources to electricity in a single reaction step, just as current fuel cells do with hydrogen," Leber writes, noting that the process is more efficient than plants that burn coal to make steam that drives turbines.

Because coal has impurities and contaminants, DCFC technology is likely to be first developed with other biomass, and the chief obstacles are money and time, Leber reports. "Personally, I feel that it's an area that needs more attention," Raster told her. "There's a role for good basic science at this point." (Read more)

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