Groundbreaking coal research yields three additional research grants

Suppose the byproducts of coal-burning power plants could supply much-needed underground water to parched soil in arid parts of the world. Suppose they could contribute to secondary fuel sources for developing countries in dire need of transportation fuels. Now suppose this could be done while producing electricity with minimal emissions.

Since establishing the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization in 2009, WashU scientists have solidified the university's leadership in coal research.

These sorts of breakthroughs are within scientists' grasp at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, where pioneering work in coal research has generated millions in research funding. That includes more than $2.6 million in the last year alone from three grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and one from the National Science Foundation.

While those ancillary breakthroughs are possible, WashU researchers primarily focus on improving efficiency and reducing carbon and other emissions from coal-burning plants, which generate 40 percent of worldwide electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Coal accounts for more than 30 percent of U.S. electricity generation and for more than 77 percent in Missouri. In China, the number exceeds 70 percent.

"Coal is ubiquitous throughout the world and is our most reliable and secure source of energy, but it has environmental challenges," said Richard Axelbaum, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science and director of the university's Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. "We have to develop technologies that allow us to address these challenges but are affordable."

WashU is leading the way thanks to groundbreaking technology that puts the coal-fired process in a pressurized environment, which can dramatically improve plant efficiency.

It also allows for the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas so that it can be pumped and stored underground — keeping the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.

"The technology we are developing is futuristic and promising," Axelbaum said. "That has generated considerable interest from the Department of Energy."

That excitement has amounted to almost $8 million in DOE funding in the past five years. In most cases, the research money is flowing directly to WashU. In others, the university is included in a research partnerships to develop the technology.

The technology that interests the DOE and other coal experts is called Staged Pressurized Oxy-Combustion (SPOC). Researchers are demonstrating the technology's ability to scale up from a laboratory-scale testing environment to real-world utility scale, while achieving greater power-plant efficiency and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. But it also has spun off related research.

For example, Pratim Biswas, the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor, assistant vice chancellor for international programs and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, received a portion of one recent grant — about $600,000 — to research technologies to better capture and repurpose carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the exhaust of these advanced coal plants.

"We will need a lot of energy throughout the world, particularly in certain parts of the world that are still developing," Biswas said. "They have to be able to use these fuels in a clean manner."

Since establishing the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization in 2009, WashU scientists have solidified the university's leadership in coal research.

"We went from having very modest research funding for coal in 2009 to about $25 million expended or committed since then, involving 20 WashU faculty and 18 international collaborators," Axelbaum said.

WashU also is a key partner in the DOE-sponsored U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), which "allows us to interact with our colleagues in China more proactively," Biswas said. "These partners are from institutions such as Tsinghua University, a partner of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy."

Biswas also noted the need to address coal-related pollution in China. In addition, researchers can test their technology in full-scale plants.

"China has an urgent need for clean power and has the ability to accelerate the implementation of these technologies," Axelbaum said.

The DOE and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology established the CERC in 2009 to foster collaboration between the two countries.

At one point in 2015, The New York Times reported that Chinese regulators had approved construction of 155 new coal-fired plants — dwarfing the number of such plants in the United States. Only recently has China curbed its appetite for massive coal plant expansion.

WashU researchers also have ties to India, and CCCU has supported collaborative research with colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay. In June 2017, researchers from WashU, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi co-organized a workshop focused on addressing challenges and identifying technological solutions. The workshop attracted personnel from the Ministries of Power and Coal and other governmental agencies, along with several from industry.

To Axelbaum, the research is critical. Developing technologies to pump and store CO2 deep underground can pay dividends by helping to tap water or oil resources previously out of reach. The SPOC process itself also produces water, which, if captured and purified, can help to address water shortages in chronically dry parts of the world, such as Africa.

In fact, he said, coal's abundance and the ease with which it can be transported represents economic opportunity for those same parts of the globe.

"Africa is a great example," Axelbaum said. "History has consistently shown that economies grow when they have reliable energy. Coal offers reliable energy, and Africa — particularly South Africa — has a lot of coal, but technologies such as SPOC are needed to produce this energy without damaging the environment."

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 140 full-time faculty, 1,387 undergraduate students, 1,448 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.