Australia wants to be clean coal research hub

Posted by Laura Grant on September 22, 2008
Posted in Green News

Australia plans to set itself up as the world hub for carbon capture research, Reuters reports. The country’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wants to get United Nations’ backing for an Australian research institute at the general assembly meeting in New York this week. Rudd says that although there’s a great deal of international effort going into carbon capture research, it’s haphazard and he wants to bring it together in one place.

Australia is the world’s top coal exporter and relies heavily on coal for power generation, so developing “clean coal” technologies such as carbon capture and storage make economic sense; they would allow the continued use of coal to generate electricity – but without the climate-harming carbon emissions.

The country is already making progress in a method of carbon capture known as post-combustion capture (PCC). In July, the CSIRO reported that carbon dioxide had been captured from power station flue gases in a PCC pilot plant at a power station in Victoria. The pilot plant is designed to capture up to 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from the power station’s exhaust-gas flues.

CSIRO energy technology chief Dr David Brockway said that PCC could potentially reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing and future coal-fired power stations by more than 85 percent.

Earlier this month another pilot project was announced in Queensland, designed to capture 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide a year at the Tarong power station. The pilot plant is expected to be operational in the first half of 2009 and the research activities associated with the technology completed in 2011.

In August, the CSIRO announced the first post-combustion research pilot plant in China at the Huaneng Beijing Co-Generation Power Plant, which is designed to capture 3,000 tonnes per annum of carbon dioxide.

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal.

What is PCC?

In the PCC process the power station’s flue gas is passed through a chemical solution (sorbent) where 85-95 percent of the carbon dioxide is captured. The carbon dioxide-rich sorbent is heated which releases the carbon dioxide. After compression and cooling the carbon dioxide then forms a liquid ready for pipeline transport to a sequestration site, the CSIRO says.

PCC technology can be retrofitted to existing coal power stations to capture greenhouse gas emissions.

Two other methods of carbon capture are (1) using an oxyfuel boiler, which involves burning coal in pure oxygen and carbon dioxide rather than normal air. This produces mostly water vapour and nearly pure carbon dioxide. After condensing the water, the carbon dioxide can be bottled. (2) Pre-combustion, which entails the removal of carbon dioxide before burning by pre-treating the coal.

Why all this attention on cleaning up coal?

Environmentalists say that a focus on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is diverting attention and money away from renewable energies. This may be true, but coal is a cheap way to generate electricity, and regardless of warnings from scientists about the need to curb carbon emissions, new coal-fired power stations are being built all over the world.

For example, In South Africa, two big new coal-fired plants will be built and two more have been proposed, adding up to 20,000MW to the national grid. The department of environmental affairs and tourism has said that no new power station will be built without being CCS ready. The Austrialian PCC technology, if it proves to be successful, could be retrofitted onto these power stations, potentially cutting back on thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emission.

Eskom’s 4,800MW Kusile power station, being built near Delmas, will be able to incorporate carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in the future, the company says. But there are doubts about the suitability of South Africa’s geological make-up for carbon storage. [Engineering News]

Reuters reports that in other parts of the world coal-fired plants are also popping up en mass: in the United States, 28 coal-fired plants are being built and another 66 are in the early planning stage; Germany is building 16 new plants; China has added new coal plants equivalent to Britain’s entire electricity-generating capacity every year for the past three years; India has approved eight “ultra mega” plants; and in Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Nigeria all plan new coal plants.

The International Energy Agency says CCS equipment must be fitted to all the world’s coal plants to halve carbon emissions by 2050. But there is doubt as to whether this would be achievable.

Other sources: Reuters, Science Daily, CSIRO

Picture: Tarong power station, courtesy Tarong Energy

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