Will cleaned-up coal be the fuel of the future?

It's destructive and dangerous to mine, and burning it contributes to global warming. But new technology being pioneered by China could give coal a whole new lease of life.

In a review of the book Big Coal , Rocky Mountain News is reporting on "The Black Side of Coal Dependency":

'America is the Saudi Arabia of coal. Whereas Saudi Arabia has more than 20% of the world's oil reserves, the United States has more than 25% of the world's recoverable coal reserves - approximately 270 billion tons.

'Russia comes in a distant second, with 176 billion tons; China has 126 billion tons, and Europe has a paltry 36 billion tonsIt's no surprise that many in America's coal industry are making a strong push for our increased reliance on coal.

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'[Big Coal author] Jeff Goodell, however, isn't so optimistic. While he agrees absolutely that America's coal reserves provide a solid natural resource base that ensures our long-term energy needs, providing for those needs with coal will be problematic.

"First, extracting coal is extremely destructive -- oil can be pumped out of the ground from a few relatively small holes, and is easier to store and transport. But getting at coal requires extensive underground mining, or, worse, strip mining. Entire Appalachian mountains have been torn down to get at the coal underneath, and at Wyoming's massive strip mines, according to one saying, They don't really mine coal, they just move dirt.' Because it is a solid, coal is far more expensive and difficult to transport than oil.

"Second, burning coal introduces vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, continuing the cycle of global warming and increasing the likelihood of more frequent and more devastating disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

"Third, reliance on coal, like other fossil fuels, discourages us from searching for alternative fuel sources. And finally, coal mining has a significant human cost -- something Goodell is keenly aware of: Coal is the only energy source that requires workers to put their lives on the line on a daily basis.'"

Is the black side of coal really that black?

The answer, of course, is another question: 'Compared with what?'

A new life for coal: conversion to DME

Like everything else related to energy, the answers are seldom black and white, but, rather, shades of gray. One alternative to burning coal directly is to first convert coal into something called dimethyl ether (DME). DME is a colorless water-soluble gas. DME is nontoxic and environmentally friendly. It can also be used for transportation.

A September 2004 research paper by Princeton University entitled Transportation Fuel From Coal With Low CO2 Emissions discusses the possibilities:

"This paper explores a strategy for mitigating climate change for coal-derived synthetic fuels both by CCS and by choosing an energy carrier that facilitates a shift to more efficient energy end-use technology. The focus is on dimethyl ether. Its high cetane number makes DME a suitable candidate fuel for compression ignition engine vehicles, which are more energy efficient than spark ignition engine vehicles. Compression ignition engine vehicles are not more widely used in part because of difficulties in realizing simultaneously low levels of emissions of both NOx and particulate matter (PM), which are being sought in tightening air pollutant emission regulations throughout the world, driven by public health concerns.

'The tradeoffs that make simultaneous NOx and PM control difficult for diesel fuel do not exist for DME, the combustion of which generates essentially no PM because of the absence of C-C bonds and of sulfur...These pollution control advantages can facilitate a transition to fuel-efficient vehicles, such as compression ignition engine/hybrid electric vehicles, although the pollution control advantages offered by DME are offset in part by the refueling infrastructure challenges that arise because at atmospheric pressure DME is a gas that must be stored in mildly pressurized canisters such as those required for LPG.

"Crude oil price at which wholesale prices are equal for DME and diesel fuel ranges from $27-36 per barrel. Such surprisingly low DME production costs must be considered together with extra costs of getting DME to the consumer (infrastructure costs) relative to petroleum diesel and potentially lower costs for DME vehicles as a result of lower costs for pollution controls. A preliminary analysis suggests that added infrastructure costs may be roughly offset by the reduced vehicle costs."

A new life for coal: research and production

So who is leading the way in DME research and production? Why, China, of course.

The Hindu is reporting, "China to Build Its Largest DME Project":

"China, the world's second largest energy consumer, will start construction of its largest dimethyl ether project, with an annual output of 3 million tonnes, to reduce rising oil consumption.

"Coal-based DME is a clean-burning alternative to liquefied petroleum gas, liquid natural gas, diesel, and gasoline.

"Located in Ordos city of north China's energy-rich Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the project will cost 21 billion yuan (US$2.6 billion), the Shanghai Securities News reports.

"Compared with the current annual output of 120,000 tons of DME each year, the project will make a huge difference to China's alternative energy sector, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the top planning body, said

"Facing oil shortages, China is speeding up efforts to develop an oil substitution [program] to reduce its reliance on oil imports and offset the effects of rising oil prices.

"But as sustained coal supply has remained a challenge for China, NDRC has banned any coal-based DME project with a design capacity lower than 1 million tonnes."

I had to read that last sentence twice. Logic should dictate that if coal were in short supply, one would not be insisting on massively large plants. The real reason is not that coal is in short supply, but rather the Chinese economy is at risk of overheating, water supply is a serious issue, and resultant pollution from the plant is a problem.

The bar was set purposely high enough that it would take central bank funding to get projects off the ground and the NDRC could place those projects in areas where the above concerns would be minimized. The end result seems to be a decrease in overall pollution if coal is converted to DME, rather than using it straight up.

A new life for coal: China and DME

The Business Online is reporting, "Sinopec to Spearhead $2.6 Billion Clean Coal Project in China":

"SINOPEC, Asia's largest oil refiner, is leading a clean coal project in China worth 21 billion yuan (US$2.6 billion)

"The Chinese government is trying to develop coal-based fuel on the mainland to reduce its reliance on oil imports and cut key pollutants by 10% between now and 2010.

"A potential shortage of natural gas has been worrying both suppliers and customers in China, prompting energy companies to build their own source of fuels

"DME plants cost 10 times more to build than comparable crude refining capacity and 1 tonne of DME requires 3 tonnes of water to make, according to Deutsche Bank

"Piped gas distributor XinAo Group is also building a coal-conversion project in Inner Mongolia, which was set to be China's largest before the Sinopec scheme was announced.

"XinAo Group's plant, scheduled to start operation in 2009, will have annual capacity for 400,000 tons of DME."

A new life for coal: petrochemicals

BizChina is reporting that China National Coal Group Corp. is purchasing Harbin's coal-to-petrochemicals plant:

"China National Coal Group Corp. is buying a major coal-to-petrochemicals plant in Harbin, Northeast China, where it plans to turn out 600,000 tons of olefin products annually using homegrown technology.

"The Beijing-based state-owned company, China's second biggest coal firm, has reached an initial agreement with the Harbin municipal government on the takeover of Harbin Coal Chemical Engineering Co. Ltd.

"Within the next three years, China National Coal aims to produce olefin products such as ethylene and propylene, widely used in the production of plastics, said Jing Tianliang, president of the coal conglomerate.

"The plant's annual production target for 2009 also includes 10 million tons of coal and 2 million tons of methanol, compared with the current capacity of 2.6 million tons of coal and 140,000 tons of methanol

"Zhang from the NDRC said that the government was keen to develop alternatives to oil, in order to cushion the Chinese economy from the effect of soaring oil prices.

"But companies should also avoid excessive investment in sectors such as coal-to-liquids, Zhang warned.

"Coal-to-petrochemicals is a good way (for China) to cope with high oil prices, but we should develop it with a good awareness of environmental protection and economic returns,' said Zhang."

A new life for coal: air pollution in China

Monsters and Critics is reporting, "IFC-China Deal to Cut Back Coal":

"The International Finance Corp. - the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group - signed a deal with China's XinAo Group to buy shares worth up to $10 million in the company, in addition to providing a $40 million loan for a plant that will convert coal into dimethyl ether. In addition, XinAo will access loans up to $140 million from commercial banks to build petrochemical facilities that will produce up to 600,000 tons of methanol, the bulk of which will be brought in from Inner Mongolia. That methanol will be used to produce about 400,000 tons of DME each year

"Although securing a steady supply of energy is crucial for China to keep its economic engine roaring, the price for explosive growth has often been paid by the country's environment

"Coal is the most readily available and cheapest energy source in China, yet mining for the resource is not only dangerous for miners, but it also causes considerable environmental damage, in addition to releasing toxic fumes when used indoors. Indeed, more than 1 million Chinese die from air pollution each year, with over 60% of those deaths occurring as a result of indoor smog, according to the bank.

"'This project will help develop new resources to meet China's energy demand and will do so in an environmentally friendly way. Replacing coal with a clean fuel for household cooking and heating has clear health benefits,' said the IFC's executive vice president, Lars Thunell, at a news briefing following the agreement signing with the bank's president, Paul Wolfowitz

"XinAo Chairman Wang Yusuo said that the deal will be as much about profits as it will be about protecting the environment.

"'DME is a clean fuel...that can replace diesel,' Wang said, and added that the shift toward DME use by public transportation and household use should eventually decrease China's dependency on oil and natural gas, an objective that has been highlighted by the Communist Party.

"'With this project, XinAo is developing a clean energy source that has been identified by the Chinese government as a strategically important alternative to polluting fuel such as coal or diesel,' Wang said. He declined, however, to specify how affordable the DME will be for consumers.

"Yet therein lies the key for the success of the project. For while DME may be less damaging to the environment than coal, the ultimate aim will be to ensure that more people are using it over coal, which will depend on a number of factors, including its affordability and availability in areas consumers are located.

"The bank's director of the oil, gas, and mining department, Rashad Kaldany, pointed out that the agency will gauge how well the project is doing not simply by setting basic numerical targets, but also by monitoring how popular it becomes with consumers, how many jobs it creates, and see how it will affect lifestyles, particularly in energy-intensive cities."

A new life for coal: America left behind

Given that '1 million Chinese die from air pollution each year, with over 60% of those deaths occurring as a result of indoor smog,' burning coal straight up is not the answer to Peak Oil. Greenhouse gasses, global warming, scarred earth, smog, and respiratory illnesses are some of the problems with coal. Converted into DME, however, many of those problems go away. A reduction in emissions is a start. And China seems serious about reducing those emissions, given the size and scope of the projects mentioned above.

Once again, the U.S. seems content to let the rest of the world take a lead. We have up to now concentrated our effort on solving our energy needs on one of the least productive and most expensive ethanol-producing alternatives (producing ethanol from corn). We will not even allow the importation of ethanol from Brazil, a country that can produce it at far cheaper prices than we. Norway, Brazil, Canada, China, and other countries are all developing significant ways to reduce their need for oil and/or are attempting to take advantage on pollution control aspects offered by DME or nuclear power. For now, the U.S. is needlessly bogged down in Iraq and seems content to sit back and watch other countries lead the way.

By Mike Shedlock for Whiskey and Gunpowder

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