Cleaning Up on Dirty Coal

A novel gasification process for low-quality coal heads to China.

The industrial boomtown of Dongguan in southeast China’s Pearl River Delta could soon host one of the country’s most sophisticated power plants, one that uses an unconventional coal-gasification technology to make the dirtiest coal behave like clean-burning natural gas. Its developers, Atlanta-based utility Southern Company and Houston-based engineering firm KBR, announced the licensing deal with Dongguan Power and Chemical Company this month.

Cheap coal: This demonstration plant in Wilsonville, AL, uses a transport gasifier to turn two tons of cheap, low-quality coal per hour into a clean-burning gas. A plant based on similar technology is scheduled for China.

Dongguan Power plans to implement the gasification scheme at an existing 120-megawatt natural-gas-fired power plant, turning it into an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant that uses cheap, moisture-laden lignite coal. The retrofit should be operating in 2011. That will provide its developers with a demonstration to determine whether technology will work in larger IGCC plants and whether it is a process suitable to integrate carbon capture and storage technology, according to John Thompson, director of the Coal Transition Program for the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental consulting firm based in Boston. “They want to show that this works,” says Thompson.

Southern and KBR’s gasification design can use dirty coal because, compared to other gasification reactors, it uses a relatively slow, low-temperature process. Conventional gasifiers, such as General Electric’s and Shell’s, rely on temperatures around 1,500 ºC to turn finely ground coal into a combustible mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as syngas. Unfortunately, such temperatures melt ash and other mineral contaminants in the coal, forming a glassy slag that eventually eats through the ceramic tiles that protect the reactors’ steel walls. Even reactors using high-quality coal have to be taken out of service for installation of new tiles at least every three years. They are thus ill-adapted for lower-quality coals that would produce several times more slag.

Dongguan’s gasifier will sidestep those issues by operating at just 925 ºC to 980 ºC, below the contaminant melting temperature, explains Randall Rush, Southern Company’s general manager for gasification systems. Coal nevertheless gasifies completely at these lower temperatures because it spends twice as long in Southern and KBR’s process.

The technology is an adaptation of the fluidized catalytic cracking employed in refineries since the 1940s, which processes petroleum by “transporting” it around a loop along with solid catalyst particles. In the gasification reactor, the incoming feed of fresh coal is transported with a looping flow of solid coal contaminants, primarily ash. The hot mass drives off most of the coal’s energy content as syngas. The solids left over simply join the flow.

Southern and KBR began designing the technology in 1988 and, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, started up a demonstration reactor at Wilsonville, AL, in 1996 that can gasify two tons of coal per hour. Four years ago they redesigned it, incorporating what they’d learned at Wilsonville. Rush says the result will be a comparatively reliable and affordable IGCC design. In the absence of slag, a reactor’s ceramic lining should last 10 to 20 years, says Rush.

The technology is attractive to Dongguan Power because it can use coal that is cheaper and less desirable. Presentations by the firm note that a doubling in fuel costs between 2004 and 2006 eliminated the company’s profit margin. And while Dongguan Power initially commissioned a reactor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Engineering Thermophysics, which built a demonstration-scale transport gasifier last year, the firm has now opted for KBR and Southern’s design.

Dongguan is betting that its IGCC plant will become a standard for China as the country cracks down on emissions, and it has already laid plans for an 800-megawatt plant. Both projects await approval by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, which controls the financial incentives needed to cover the higher cost of an IGCC plant - about double the price of a pulverized-coal plant. The agency has approved only one of about a dozen IGCC projects proposed to date - the 250-megawatt GreenGen project under construction in Tianjin.

IGCCs could take off faster in the U.S. thanks to a carbon cap-and-trade system under consideration by Congress. That is, if it passes and can push carbon prices high enough. Southern Company subsidiary Mississippi Power Company has hit a wall of protest with a proposal to build a 582-megawatt IGCC plant in Kemper County, MS, in advance of that price signal. Mississippi Power’s plant would capture 65 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions, giving the lignite-fired plant a carbon footprint comparable to that of natural gas. That promise earned the $2.2 billion project $403 million in federal grants and tax breaks.

Thompson, at the Clean Air Task Force, argues that both the Dongguan and the Kemper projects must go forward because they provide a means of controlling carbon emissions from coal. He says environmentalists should recognize that coal use worldwide is not going away anytime soon, making carbon capture critical to achieving the very large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required in the decades to come to minimize the ecological impacts of global climate change.

“If new technologies to tame the CO2 emissions from coal aren’t widely deployed soon, everything the environmental movement has sought to achieve over the last century goes out the window,” says Thompson. “If CCS isn’t widely deployed, it’s game over.”

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