The Cleanest Coal Technology - a Real Gas!
Don't think of coal as a solid black rock. Think of it as a mass of atoms. Most of the atoms are carbon. A few are hydrogen. And there are some others, like sulfur and nitrogen, mixed in. Chemists can take this mass of atoms, break it apart, and make new substances - like gas!
How do you break apart the atoms of coal? You may think it would take a sledgehammer, but actually all it takes is water and heat. Heat coal hot enough inside a big metal vessel, blast it with steam (the water), and it breaks apart. Into what?
The carbon atoms join with oxygen that is in the air (or pure oxygen can be injected into the vessel). The hydrogen atoms join with each other. The result is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen - a gas.
Now, what do you do with the gas?
You can burn it and uses the hot combustion gases to spin a gas turbine to generate electricity. The exhaust gases coming out of the gas turbine are hot enough to boil water to make steam that can spin another type of turbine to generate even more electricity. But why go to all the trouble to turn the coal into gas if all you are going to do is burn it?
A major reason is that the impurities in coal - like sulfur, nitrogen and many other trace elements - can be almost entirely filtered out when coal is changed into a gas (a process called gasification). In fact, scientists have ways to remove 99.9% of the sulfur and small dirt particles from the coal gas. Gasifying coal is one of the best ways to clean pollutants out of coal.
Another reason is that the coal gases - carbon monoxide and hydrogen - don't have to be burned. They can also be used as valuable chemicals. Scientists have developed chemical reactions that turn carbon monoxide and hydrogen into everything from liquid fuels for cars and trucks to plastic toothbrushes!
Today, outside of Tampa, Florida (near the town of Lakeland), and in West Terre Haute, Indiana, there are power plants generating electricity by gasifying coal, rather than burning it.
Coal gasification could be one of the most promising ways to use coal in the future to generate electricity and other valuable products. Yet, it is only one of an entirely new family of energy processes called "Clean Coal Technologies" - technologies that can make fossil fuels future fuels.