A team of researchers at Ohio State University in the US claim to have discovered a new method of taking the energy from coal without actually burning it. The new method – called coal-direct chemical looping – has been pioneered by Professor Liang-Shih Fan and his team at Ohio State University, and is claimed to essentially remove the danger from greenhouse gasses when using coal for energy.
Whilst any other power plant that burns coal does so traditionally – by burning the coal to create steam to turn turbines – Professor Fan’s coal-direct chemical looping chemically combusts the coal.
As this is isn’t done with fire, oxygen isn’t necessary to the reaction and can be performed in a sealed chamber so harmful CO2 cannot escape. Also possible with coal-derived syngas, both units running side-by-side produced 25 thermal kilowatts of energy.
“In the simplest sense, combustion is a chemical reaction that consumes oxygen and produces heat,” Fan says. “Unfortunately, it also produces carbon dioxide, which is difficult to capture and bad for the environment. So we found a way to release the heat without burning.”
To prove the theory, Fan and his team created a scaled-down power plant on campus at the university, and ran it continuously for 203 hours. The miniature power plant was not only a success, capturing 99 % of the carbon dioxide produced over the course of the 8 days, but it could have run for much longer.
“We voluntarily chose to stop the unit. Honestly, it was a mutual decision by Dr. Fan and the students. It was a long and tiring week where we all shared shifts,” says doctoral student Elena Chung.
How soon until we see coal-direct chemical looping brought into the commercial energy market? In the US, at least, it could be in use by the end of the year. A pilot plant is already underway at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center, and has an estimated 250 thermal kilowatt output.
Should the government-backed test run prove effective, the scope for commercial energy development with this method will become clear.
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