Natural Gas

Coal as 'Clean' as Natural Gas?

A renaissance for King Coal?

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A Japanese company claims to have developed a new coal-burning technology that boosts coal's energy efficiency by 30 percent while reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 40 percent. Unlike conventional plants, which burn coal at around 700 degrees Celsius, the Osaka Coolgen plant roasts coal at more than 1,300 degrees Celsius while simultaneously blowing oxygen over it to convert the solid fuel into a gas. The plant also uses exhaust heat to generate power, and it extracts hydrogen from the gas to use in fuel cells to create electricity.

Using conventional technologies, burning enough bituminous coal to produce 1 million british thermal units (BTUs) emits 205 pounds of carbon dioxide. If the new technology reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, that would cut emissions to roughly 123 pounds. Getting the same energy yield from natural gas emits 117 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Last year the electricity generated from natural gas accounted for the largest share of total U.S. electric power generation (33.8 percent), surpassing coal's share (30.4 percent) for the first time ever. In fact, America's electric power sector burned 677 million tons of coal in 2016, the lowest amount since 1984.

Meanwhile, the American price of coal per million BTUs has recently fallen below that of natural gas. Could this new technology spark a resurgence of coal mining and a boost in employment for miners?

Probably not for now. Osaka Coolgen estimates that its new plants would cost 20 percent more to build than conventional coal-fired facilities. In the United States, the levelized cost for conventional coal plants ranges between $60 to $143 per megawatt/hour; for gas combined cycle plants, by contrast, the range is $48 to $78. Given these costs, power generation companies are unlikely to build new coal-fired plants in the U.S. using the new Japanese technology.

Coal mining productivity rose from 1.93 tons per miner-hour in 1980 to 6.28 short tons per miner-hour in 2015. Thanks largely to automation, employment in the industry fell from 242,000 in 1980 to 102,000 in 2015. So even if demand for coal increases, the effect of on mining employment in the U.S. would be small.

On the other hand, countries like China and India, which have abundant supplies of coal, could find the new power generation technology useful if they intend to lower the rate of increase in their carbon dioxide emissions, fulfilling their pledges under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Fracking upended the assumptions underpinning the future of oil and natural gas production; this new technology could do the same for the global future of coal.

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88 responses to “Coal as 'Clean' as Natural Gas?

  1. Unlike conventional plants, which burn coal at around 700 degrees Celsius, the Osaka Coolgen plant roasts coal at more than 1,300 degrees Celsius while simultaneously blowing oxygen over it to convert the solid fuel into a gas. The plant also uses exhaust heat to generate power, and it extracts hydrogen from the gas to use in fuel cells to create electricity.

    Neat.

    1. The plant also uses exhaust heat to generate power

      Don’t they all do that, technically?

      The only difference between ‘power producing heat’ and ‘exhaust heat’ is having the proper set of equipment needed to utilize it.

      Then the heat from *that* becomes the exhaust heat.

      1. I assumed that’s what Ron meant. Just that their even more efficiently using the energy with extra equipment.

    2. Wow, technology to solve our energy problem rather than government meddling.

      Of course, some will say that because of government meddling, coal is on its way out and this technology would not have come about without the meddling.

      With this logic, all business would be suppressed under government meddling and only the few tech tidbits that government meddling allowed would surface. The rest of us would live in wealth stagnation or abject poverty.

      1. some will say that because of government meddling, coal is on its way out and this technology would not have come about without the meddling.

        It might have come about more slowly, but it still would have come about incrementally, as efficiency is always better than inefficiency.

        Part of why early cars got such crappy mileage was because gasoline was considered to be a useless and dangerous byproduct of kerosene production and therefore cost next to nothing. Efficiency wasn’t a main consideration.

        Once gasoline became the necessary fuel for how all of us get around, the price started to go up, along with fuel efficiency.

        In fact, the main reason American car manufacturers lagged European and Japanese ones in chasing fuel efficiency was that they had essentially a shared monopoly and for decades didn’t really need to care about competition, even though the American public was screaming for more fuel-efficient cars.

        1. Free market gives incentives for tech like this, as you say. Price points, entrepreneurial spirit, and achievable technology dictate how capital is spent.

          Government give arbitrary orders on how capital is spent.

          Just a real shame because who knows what vehicle tech we would have if government would get out of the way. Instead we have backup cameras, more and more airbags and other tech not everyone wants rather than who knows what kind of tech.

          And the price of cars does not really go down. Hmm, I was always taught that increased efficiency in manufacturing, higher sales, and more competition causes prices to go down. Not with crony Ford USA, GM USA, and Chrysler USA.

  2. CO2 isn’t a pollutant.

    (If it is, you’ll have to send men-with-guns after me for exhaling. And those men-with-guns also exhale, so that doesn’t help anything either.)

    1. The same logic applies to feces.

      1. I would hope that those men-with-guns would properly dispose of their feces (as I do) and not expel it into the air wherever they go like they (presumably) exhale…

      2. Aside from the facts that one is a solid (or at least a colloid) the other a gas, one contains self-replicating pathogens and the other doesn’t, and one is a direct feedstock for all plant life on the planet while the other requires additional processing, yes they’re the same.

        1. I suspect he might have meant to say ‘methane’ but who really knows.

        2. yes they’re the same.

          I’m exceedingly certain your underselling or oversimplifying the differences. As someone who’s been involved in the industrial conversion of feces to plant feedstock, a 400 ppm atmospheric concentration of vaporized turds is much less desirable than the plain old 3-400 ppm concentration of CO2.

          1. There appears to be a systemic breakdown of sarcasm detectors today.

      3. This is a shitty matter to discuss..

    2. Can you show me where in the original post anyone said anything about whether CO2 is a pollutant?

      1. Two ways to answer that one. Pick either:

        1. The title is “Coal as ‘Clean’ as Natural Gas?” and only talks about CO2. So it at least implies that coal is “unclean”.

        2. Even if the article doesn’t say “CO2 is a pollutant”, it still bears repeating. If you let people obsess about “too much CO2” constantly, it may affect you thinking (and others’ thinking) that it must be a bad thing.

        1. I believe the potential importance of CO2 is not that it is a pollutant but a greenhouse gas.

          1. So we can all stop talking about carbon pollution now?

          2. Now, that can be argued.

            But even if it were, would that imply it’s “unclean”?

          3. What, you mean like water? Water is a greenhouse gas. What’s your point? There are orders of magnitude more water in the atmosphere than CO2. Do you worry about the H2O content of the atmosphere, or how much water is produced in coal energy production?

            1. Do you worry about the H2O content of the atmosphere

              Much above 990,000 ppm and *I* start to get concerned.

              1. I still wouldn’t necessarily consider it to be dirty though.

              2. I lol’ed ^_^

            2. Living on the Texas Gulf Coast, I’m always concerned with the quantity of water in the atmosphere.

    3. To be fair, the argument that CO2 is a pollutant is based upon adding new CO2 to the air. As in burning fossil fuels that release new CO2. When you exhale you are not creating new CO2. You are returning what plants consumed recently. Part of a cycle. As opposed to returning what plants consumed millions of years ago.

      1. ^ This.

        One can make the same argument in response to water vapor – i.e. we’re not adding significant amounts of water vapor to the atmosphere.

        1. And yet the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is between .01% and 3% of the atmosphere depending on temperature, whereas CO2 makes up about .00035% of the atmosphere on average. The lethal concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, as a percent, would be .04% (a massive difference). Factually speaking, water makes up the giants share of so-called greenhouse gasses, theorized to be around 36% to 85% of all warming (depending on localized concentrations).

          Odd that so many people lose their minds over an almost imperceptible increase in trace CO2 as opposed to what is generally understood to be the major driver. People are stupid, is the short version, and anyone freaking out about some multiplier effect due to the different bands of radiation absorbed by CO2 are freaking out about a phenomena that has not been observed in nature.

          1. And what happens in the upper (dry) atmosphere? That’s the real effect.

            The “trace gas” argument isn’t a good one. Best to drop it.


            1. And what happens in the upper (dry) atmosphere? That’s the real effect.

              The “trace gas” argument isn’t a good one. Best to drop it.

              While the Earth does have a convection current in the atmosphere, it’s a fact that CO2 is heavier than ‘air’ and thus it sinks generally speaking.

          2. And yet the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is between .01% and 3% of the atmosphere depending on temperature, whereas CO2 makes up about .00035% of the atmosphere on average.

            C02 is .04% of the atmosphere.

            By volume, dry air contains 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of water vapor, on average around 1% at sea level, and 0.4% over the entire atmosphere.

            But yes, C02 is considered a “minor” greenhouse gas whereas water vapor is a “major” greenhouse gas.

            1. If CO2 were .04% of the atmosphere we would all be dead, since 40000ppm is the lethal concentration. Do you math?

              1. That’s a quote from somewhere I assume. I have no idea how they’re calculating it, but how they arrive at .04% is a mystery given that the concentration is roughly 350-400 parts per million.

              2. 40000ppm is 4%, not .04%.

                And presumably the .00035% above is actually .00035, which rounds to .0004, or .04%

          3. If 400 ppm or 0.04% of the air is CO2 there are 10^ 21 CO2 molecule in a cubic meter, and the average distance between CO2 molecules is is 4.5 x 10-8 m.

            So compared to the wavelength band in which CO2 absorbs light in the IR– ~ 10- 14 microns, how many CO2 molecules are there along one wavelength of IR light CO2 is capable of absorbing?

            The answer is about 300, and the atmosphere is billions of IR wavelengths thick-

            That’s more than enough

            in future, please do some dimensional analysis before repeating climate playbook cliche’s

      2. That’s profoundly stupid, but I understand. How dare we release the CO2 that those brave plants/animals heroically sacrificed their lives to trap?

        1. How is it stupid? While catastrophic predictions about climate are questionable, I think it’s pretty well established that CO2 content in the atmosphere correlates to higher temperatures. It’s at least reasonable to ask whether adding more CO2 to the atmosphere has downsides greater than the benefits gained by using fossil fuels.

          1. It’s stupid that it’s a “pollutant” because it’s been out of the carbon system for a long time. That’s profoundly stupid. It’d be more reasonable to say that the creation of the fossil fuels were “pollution” both because oil can kill and that it trapped CO2 and (potentially) caused global cooling.

          2. Factually speaking, warmer temperatures are a net gain for the planet even if a few places might be net losers. This is glossed over because it can’t be pointed out that most places would improve. We are, after all, still leaving a mini-ice age. Why would we expect temperatures to go down or stay static?

            It’s also worth pointing out the old adage that correlation is not causation. There have been some studies that suggest that higher CO2 levels actually come after warming, but at the same time I wouldn’t say those studies are 100% accurate either. There are several conclusions you could draw from that, and when you’re looking at data that’s possibly millions of years old it’s tough to be sure.

            1. We are, after all, still leaving a mini-ice age

              We may even be leaving The Ice Age.

              Per the observed pattern of the last 1,000,000 years, we’re several thousand years overdue for another glaciation, and GMT for the last 1,000,000 years has been what we might, for lack of a better paradigm, characterize as “unusually low.”

              Earth has not “normally” been a planet with permanent ice masses (but it has been for the entire time homo sapiens has existed).

              The correlation of the rise of human civilization with the delay of another glaciation is intriguing, but I don’t think we actually have the data to draw a causation line – I.e. was human civilization able to develop because the earth has come out of an extreme cold period and we’re done with glaciation? Or did global warming start with things like the Neanderthal deforestation of Australia?

              And is AGW the only thing saving us from another glaciation?

              We don’t know these things, which is why I strongly dislike the “Science is Settled” crowd.

              1. Or did global warming start with things like the Neanderthal deforestation of Australia?

                Anthropogenic global warming, that is.

              2. Old enough to remember when the end the of the current interglacial was the big climate fear. We knew it was coming.

                For people actually concerned about “sustainability”, a turn back to glaciation is of interest. Not much that’s sustainable in the face of a mile high sheet of ice.

                I saw some paper claiming that mankind’s CO2 emissions had pushed back the end of the interglacial for tens of thousands of year. Maybe so. Maybe not. Something to hope for regardless.

    4. Depends on how much fossil food you eat.

  3. Keep this sort of stuff up, and we won’t need the gov’t to help us reduce emissions!

    1. Never have. Such nonsense is government propaganda, pure and simple, self-aggrandizement I believe it is called.

      1. “Never have.”

        Jeeze, do I have to /sarc/?

        1. I thought I was just reinforcing it! Do I need to /sarc/sarc?

    2. Every time you point, I see a clathrate gun.

      1. What we need is some common sense clathrate gun regulations.

        1. Realistically, on Earth, nobody needs more than two melting polar ice caps.

  4. Is this different from ultracritical coal plants? (Or ultra-supercritical, if that is the right term?)

    1. Basically they turn coal into syngas and then run it thru a sorta CCGT process. Throw in some hydrogen reformation and fuel cells too.

      1. The article is crap. Based on this I don’t think there are “three sources of power.” Basically they gassify coal, then pass it thru an SOFC (one source of power), and expand some of the waste heat thru a standard steam cycle (second source).

  5. Using conventional technologies, burning enough bituminous coal to produce 1 million british thermal units (BTUs) emits 205 pounds of carbon dioxide. If the new technology reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, that would cut emissions to roughly 123 pounds. Getting the same energy yield from natural gas emits 117 pounds of carbon dioxide.

    Ummmm, but rechargeable batteries don’t emit any carbon dioxide at all. We could just replace all the power plants with rechargeable batteries and solve the global warming problem at one lick. Well, that and getting rid of all the cow farts by getting people to buy all their meat from grocery stores instead of killing poor innocent cows and pigs and chickens for meat like we’re some kind of savages.

    YOU’RE WELCOME!

    1. We can take all the surplus cows that will exist when we’re ordered to go vegan to save the planet, hokk ’em up on treadmills to get ‘natural’ power, shove tubes up their butts to collect the greenhouse gases.

      That one’s free.

    2. Crickets, son. The future is in cricket meat.

    3. The statement “We could just replace all the power plants with rechargeable batteries” makes no sense. Obviously, the energy to charge those batteries have to come from somewhere.

      If you were being sarcastic, my apologies. My meter would need to be adjusted.

      1. He was indeed being sarcastic ^_^

        1. Yeah, after I wrote the comment I realized that it had to be sarcasm. Loss of brain function.

          1. Up late watching baseball. It’s the new excuse.

      2. Clearly, the energy to charge those batteries is coming from the surplus cows on treadmills. Do try to keep up! 😉

  6. “Given these costs, power generation companies are unlikely to build new coal-fired plants in the U.S.”

    And, of course, this has nothing to do with EPA regulations that make building a new coal plant unfeasible and it certainly has nothing to do with the fact that over the past eight years the federal government had aggressively restricted the permits for new coal plant construction.

    No, of course, it’s totally just the free market in a very loose and not at all correct definition of what constitutes a ‘free market’.

    1. So the government made something more expensive and the innovators did what innovators do – make it cheaper – and we’re supposed to thank the government?

    2. And, of course, this has nothing to do with EPA regulations that make building a new coal plant unfeasible and it certainly has nothing to do with the fact that over the past eight years the federal government had aggressively restricted the permits for new coal plant construction.

      I also like how Ron kinda tacitly suggests that the Chinese *might* be interested in the technology… if they were interested in decreasing their emissions. Ya gotta be careful around Reason (forums) wouldn’t want to lay the “We might be more communist/less capitalist than the Chinese.” notion on too thick.

      1. I’m sure the Chinese are interested in this technology, but that’s because is generates more power from the same amount of input which is literally the only important thing if you’re a utilitarian communist.

        1. ^ This.

        2. They also want (somewhat) to reduce their smog.

  7. Coal as ‘Clean’ as Natural Gas?
    A renaissance for King Coal?

    Holy Shit! They found a good way to strip out all of the Mercury and other heavy metals?!

    A Japanese company claims to have developed a new coal-burning technology that boosts coal’s energy efficiency by 30 percent while reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 40 percent.

    Goddammit! Bailey, you had my hopes up. Instead, it’s the endless BS about CO2 “polluting” when NO ONE addresses the real issue with coal-burning: poisoning water supplies with heavy metals. This is how you know “environmentalists” don’t give a fvck about the environment. Coal is the reason mercury poisoning happens when you eat fish. It’s an actual pollution issue today, not some imaginary problem in a wished for dystopian future.

    1. it’s the endless BS about CO2 “polluting” when NO ONE addresses the real issue with coal-burning: poisoning water supplies with heavy metals. This is how you know “environmentalists” don’t give a fvck about the environment.

      ^ This.

      This is exactly why environmental “problems” should be addressed locally, in terms of actual harm, rather than through centralized regulation.

    2. You know what else has mercury in it? Billions of improperly disposed of government mandated light bulbs. Obviously, that’s a lot better than tungsten for…reasons.

      1. You know what else has mercury in it? Billions of improperly disposed of government mandated light bulbs.

        If there’s a single practical effect of the global warming hysteria that drives me nuts, it’s this. This and the serious suggestion to combat global warming by pumping the atmosphere full of aerosols.

        The arrogance of central regulators knows no bounds.

        1. Yeah, they even made a movie about that kind of folly. It was terrible, but amusing for a seriously low budget sci-fi flick. It was called ‘Snowpiercer’ I believe.

          I am far, far more concerned with geo-engineering wack nuts than any of the other greenies. They have the hubris to not only believe they understand what Earth is and should be doing, but they believe they can control it as well. If this isn’t a modern tower of babel, I don’t know what is.

          Real pollution is real and hurts real people. CO2 is a bogeyman.

      2. LEDs are going to permanently kill CFL bulbs soon. The future will look back at the surge in CFL production as one of the biggest, stupidest government follies in a long history of big, stupid government follies. I mean, without government intervention incandescents would have easily bridged the gap to affordable LED technology without anyone having any incentive to make CFLs 30% of the market share, or whatever it peaked at.

        Of course LEDs have heavy metals in them too, but those metals aren’t released into the air when you drop an LED (assuming the LED even breaks in the first place.) It’s much easier to recycle metals that stay in solid form…

        1. Plus LEDs use less electricity than CFL bulbs.

          It was a perverse government abstraction of the free market that luckily is being minimized by LEDs taking over the light bulb market.

          1. Not really. Gas discharge lighting is about as efficient as it gets. They are more reliable because the ballasts are a major source of failure, but LED still has to worry about heat and its local dc conversion.

  8. Osaka Coolgen estimates that its new plants would cost 20 percent more to build than conventional coal-fired facilities. In the United States, the levelized cost for conventional coal plants ranges between $60 to $143 per megawatt/hour; for gas combined cycle plants, by contrast, the range is $48 to $78. Given these costs, power generation companies are unlikely to build new coal-fired plants in the U.S. using the new Japanese technology.

    Doesn’t the levelized cost include rebates? If so, wouldn’t that mean that some share of each coal plant is made more expensive artificially through regulation? I’m sure that the cost of the new style plant will indeed be higher, but at the same time the cost comparison might be distorted by regulatory scheme’s.


    On the other hand, countries like China and India, which have abundant supplies of coal, could find the new power generation technology useful if they intend to lower the rate of increase in their carbon dioxide emissions, fulfilling their pledges under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

    Haha, don’t worry. They never intended to meet those goals anyway.

    1. Ron confuses the capital cost with the total cost. Operating costs, i.e. fuel are a significant fraction of LCOE.

      1. LCOE calculations also assume the power plant will be allowed to continue operating out to it’s estimated shutdown date, and I’m not so sure that’s a safe bet anymore. I wager the market feels the same way these days. It’s insane how large of a policy shift there is between different Presidents Emperors these days. I would hate to be a major investor in any of these technologies. Much safer to bet on Silicon Valley, IMO.

        1. That’s a bigger knock on solar and wind. EIA just assumes a 25 year life. Reality hasn’t been so kind. Silly Valley has turned into the modern day tulip. When the majority of your ‘innovation’ consists of tweaking web pages ro change the emojis, be afraid. That place was built on process technology and Moore’s law is dead.

      2. N: Not a confusion – it’s an admittedly rough comparison, but both gas and coal plants have fuel costs.

        1. Which are assumed identical and not impacted by efficiency, right?

        2. One advantage of this technology is that lower grade coal can be used, as compared to conventional coal-fired. No idea how much this would change the economics on the coal side of the equation.

  9. I haven’t seen any thermodynamic cycle diagrams, or anything about loses, but it’s hard for me to image the new process being more efficient than the other most recent methods.

    How do they get combustion up to 1300 C? How much does it cost to get O2 blowing over it? Extracting the H2? I’d like to learn more about it if I had the time.

    1. This looks like coal gasification via partial oxidation (POX), a technology that has been for decades, combined with fuel cell technology that has proven to be inordinately expensive in the past.

      It doesn’t seem to be particularly novel, but it’s hard to tell from an article that describes the process as “roasting coal”.

      An air products plant is energy-intensive. The energy intensity of extracting the hydrogen all depends on the purity level required by the fuel cells. High-purity hydrogen doesn’t come cheap, which is why California’s “hydrogen economy” was nothing more than Arnold’s pipe dream.

      At least they aren’t talking about sequestration … even though the CO2 effluent from POX is the least bad candidate for carbon sequestration since it is nearly free of huge quantities of nitrogen attending combustion with air.

    2. By running at that temp. There’s nothing magical about reacting things at a different temp. The limitations are in the rest of the system, e.g. the steam plant.

      Yup, the O2 will be a power drain that they’ll have to make up on net.

      Hydrogen is a component of syngas, or it’s a canard and is reformed directly in the SOFC. You can read the link I posted above (from 2009…).

    3. I was myself curious about the thermodynamics. Ron Bailey’s original citation doesn’t explain how this really works. But a bit of poking around on the web turns up the usual (!) Wikipedia reference (search for Integrated gasification fuel cell cycle) in which it appears that the basic ideas are well known (last update to the Wikipedia page 2014 except for a page reorg in 2017). As best I can tell, what’s new here is elevating the temperature, which is well-known as a way to improve thermodynamic efficiency.
      Not to take anything away from the new development, just clarifying.

    4. I has been many years since my last thermo class, and you guys seem more current. I realize combustion at higher temps is generally more efficient. But I was wondering about getting it up to that temperature and maintaining it there. Are there any losses or energy cost there?

      1. The only practical limitations on the operating temps are in the materials used. Steam cycles are limiting because water has phase changes at such low temps requiring high pressures for supercritical operarion. That’s why the MSR guys want to use helium in a brayton cycle.

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