The Climate Change Parrot Sketch: Is coal dead, or merely resting? Can carbon capture save the day?

August 20, 2015 |

Is the parrot dead, or just resting?

You’ve heard perhaps from many quarters that Coal is Dead. The exception is the occasional Pro-Coal Dude, who says that Coal isn’t dead, it’s just resting.

Maybe what we need is not a debate over coal power, but a better use case.

Pro-Coal Dude: Coal lives! Emissions don’t matter as much as jobs and affordable energy.
Coal Critic: Coal is dead! You can get jobs and affordable energy from other technologies without messing up the atmosphere.
Pro-Coal Dude: There’s no evidence that burning coal causes climate change.
Coal Critic: Sure there is, there’s tons of evidence. Truckloads. You could fill a coal mine with the evidence.
Pro-Coal Dude: That’s patently untrue. I have a guy here I found by the side of the road, who denies that climate change is valid, and here’s his white coat to prove he’s a scientist.
Coal Critic: That’s not a lab coat, that’s a plastic garbage bag sewn up to look like a lab coat.
Pro-Coal Dude: (stamping feet) Emissions don’t matter as much as jobs and affordable energy! And there’s nothing affordable to society like coal!
Coal Critic: Nothing except natural gas.
Pro-Coal Dude: We’ll run out of gas!

The dialogue supposes that there’s nothing valuable that can be done with coal except burn it. And it hinges on a series of nuanced arguments about renewable energy and fossil energy.

About those nuanced arguments over what is clean and what is not

Yes, friends, it's a big nuclear reactor raising radiation throughout space, and burning its fossil, finite reserves of hydrogen. Just saying.

Yes, friends, it’s a big nuclear reactor spewing deadly radiation throughout space, and burning finite reserves of hydrogen. Just saying.

Yes, friend, the sun is going to run out of energy one day. It’s ultimately no more renewable, in a definitive sense, than fossil energy because of the “heat death of the universe” problem. And it’s true that if you burn and release fossil CO2 that ultimately in several hundred million years under the right conditions it will become fossil oil, gas and coal. So, the whole definition of “renewability” is about abundance, replacement cycles and sourcing.

Liked: Things that are replaced on a free basis using abundant, faraway sources.
Disliked: Things that cost money, use scarce resources and/or are extracted from someone’s backyard.

Accordingly, people like solar-based energy systems (e.g. solar, wind) because the nuclear fusion reactor is 93 million miles from Earth, we are shielded from the radiation, and the Sun isn’t going to run out of its fossil hydrogen fuel for billions of years.  Solar is described as “clean” technology, though here on Earth fossil hydrogen projects and nuclear technology never get the same love.


Energy environmentalism, to a great extent, is an exotic flavor of NIMBYism (nukes are OK, but Not in My Backyard). Fossil advocacy or Do-Nothingism comes down to an exotic flavor of NUMBEEism (Not Using My Bucks, Ever, Either).

Generally, Digest readers around the world fall into a third category, because they are NEMBEEists. That is, Never Employ Materials Badly, Even Energy. Digesterati generally favor higher-use cases.

The Unloved Coalition of Better Use Cases

That’s why readers look at anaerobic digester technologies and say, why make 20 cents of power when you can make a $2 fuel? Or, look at fermentation technologies and say, why can’t we make a $5 chemical instead of a $2 fuel? Or, look at some algae technologies and say, why can’t we make a $20 vitamin instead of a $5 chemical?

This group of people tend to look at resources on a rationalist basis — seeing a wide gap between “plunder it all, heedless of the future” and “never touch it, amigo, ”they seek the middle ground. They trust that there’s always a way to optimize resources, and that there’s no such thing as a bad feedstock, there’s only a bad use case.

Better Uses for Coal

Consider coal, then. The evidence has piled up that coal is not as affordable as it used to be, in comparison to other feedstocks, and that the environmental consequences are dire in terms of the pile-up of CO2 from an industrialized world if we continue to use it for power generation like we do today.

Yes, we struggle with Do-Nothingism because not everyone “follows the science” when the economics are inconvenient and not everyone “reads the science” either.

The problem, friends, is not in the feedstock, but in the use case. There are very interesting things that can be done with coal resources that do not involve venting CO2 into the atmosphere, and which add value compared to our current use cases.

One technology that has attracted a lot of attention is Carbon Capture and sequestration — that is, burying CO2 back in the ground. Digesterati tend not to like that technology class because it adds cost, solving the environmental problem but not with a higher- or better-use case. It’s an ACE Case — as in Avoid the Consequences, Expensively.

NEMBEEs tend to prefer carbon capture and use. Take the CO2 and make something useful and valuable from it. There’s Algenol, Sapphire Energy, Joule, or Liquid Light technology to work with, for example.

Oxidative Hydrothermal Dissolution, and opportunities in coal and biomass

Here’s another one, very interesting though not as far along in terms of development. One to watch.

It’s called Oxidative Hydrothermal Dissolution, a direct liquefaction technology developed by Thermaquatica. Greenpower has the rights to the OHD technology for Australia and New Zealand, and is in the early-stages of developing projects. Just this week, a joint Greenpower Energy Limited (ASX: GPP)/Monash University R&D project received funding support from the Australian Government’s Research Connections initiative.

OHD works by reaction of the starting material, in this case coal, with dissolved O2 in hydrothermal water, i.e. high temperature, high pressure liquid water. OHD utilizes “oxidative bond scission” to break up the overall molecular network — requiring no exotic catalysts or solvents, and producing little CO2 and no NOx or SOx emissions.

At 240-300 degrees Celsius and 1500-2500 psi of pressure, in the presence of dissolved oxygen, rapid dissolution of coal occurs.  Essentially complete conversion of the coal is typically readily achievable with 70->90% of the initial carbon recoverable as low MW water soluble products.

In general, OHD products derived from coal consist of a mixture of monoaromatic acids and phenols, with lesser amounts of simple aliphatic acids and diacids.  To some extent, the mixture of products can be manipulated by variation of key process variables, especially temperature, oxidant loading and contact time, but by and large the nature of the products generated is a reflection of the inherent structure of the original coal.  The majority of products are di- or poly functionalized and many are of potential interest as feedstocks for production of polymers or for conversion to liquid fuels.


Greenpower’s interest

Australia is home to one of the world’s largest reserves of brown coal — not very effective for power generation — it has high initial water content, low ash/mineral content, and is abundant in the Aussie state of Victoria.

Development Status

Proof of concept laboratory-scale work is fully complete, and initial scale up to pilot engineering scale (up to 5kg/hour) has been successfully completed, with ongoing testing and development work continuing. 20 tonne/day pilot plant engineering is complete — and Greenergy expects to site it in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

Product streams

Here are the outputs from the 20 ton per day input of Victorian brown coal (6700 tons per year, allowing for 90% uptime), and 3 tons per day of ethanol:

1] Oxygenated fuels 1950 tonnes/year
2] pHB [aka Paraben] 750 tonnes/year
3] Ethyl vanillate 730 tonnes/year

The output stream can be modified so that 100% of it can be converted to oxygenated fuels. A major work in progress is the creation of a manufacturing chain starting at pHB and ethyl vanillate and culminating in the production of bio-degradable plastics.

The development of products useful in soil enhancement is a second major work in progress. When one considers the reliable repeatability of the process and the ability to produce large volumes there is an excellent prospect that the OHD liquor can enable soil improvements to be implemented on a broad acre scale.

Finally, the OHD liquor will readily grow mould which contains lipids. As lipids are the basic building block for bio-diesel, commercial significance of the mould growing propensity is being investigated and quantified.

The Bottom Line

Here, you have a much better use case — almost no venting of CO2 in the processing, and roughly 40% of the product is sequestered in chemical form, plus there’s an oxygenated fuel available which will displace fossil fuels and have superior performance environmentally. All from a very low-cost feedstock whose primary use case (power generation) is in complete peril at the moment.

Lots of development and testing left to do on this technology. But it nicely illustrates what NUMBEEs seek, better use cases as opposed to demonizing feedstocks.

A useful PDF regarding Greenpower Energy technology, here.

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