Dinosaur coal shows it can adapt

FAR from being an industrial dinosaur, coal is emerging as one of the most versatile and imaginative commodities on the planet, according to a recent gathering of industry figures and scientists hosted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development (CCSD) in Brisbane.

Angie Tomlinson

Presenters spoke about the “new coal” starting to emerge from the huge national and global research and development effort that has sprung into being under the spur of global warming.

According to centre CEO Frank van Schagen, instead of ringing the industry's death knell, public concern over climate change has triggered a spate of innovation.

Van Schagen said this would yield greater national energy efficiency, enhanced security and new industrial opportunities as well as a cleaner environment.

Presenters highlighted the international cooperation between research organisations and industry.

One such project, according to United States Electric Power Research Institute director Stu Dalton, was the collaboration between organisations in Asia, Europe Australia and America on developing the CoalFleet for Tomorrow, which aims to have three to five advanced Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plants on line by 2010.

Dr Nsakala ya Nsakala, from power and rail specialist ALSTOM, presented on the gains in efficiency and CO2 reductions that would be obtained by moving to ultra-super-critical power generation technology.

ALSTOM is also making progress in developing oxy-fired circulating fluidised bed technology, now ready for demonstration, and is moving towards advanced CO2 capture systems in the longer term.

Australia's own feasibility study on a first-of-type demonstration for oxygen-fired pulverised fuel combustion was progressing well, said CCSD project leader Dr Chris Spero. The technology combines recycled flue gas with pure oxygen to provide options that allow the capture and storage of CO2.

Dr Louis Wibberley outlined plans for CSIRO to take a fresh look at post-combustion capture of CO2. If breakthroughs are delivered at the scale required, they offer a way forward for conventional pulverised fuel combustion if tough carbon rules are introduced.

A major issue at the conference, raised by several speakers, was the challenge of making billion dollar decisions about investments in coal and power generation in a period of regulatory uncertainty.

Presenters said costly near-zero emissions technology would not happen without a regulatory environment – carbon taxes, trading or special incentives – that overcame the initial cost disadvantage and risks associated with new technology.