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image European Research News Centre > Energy > The quest for clean coal
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image The quest for clean coal
RDT info 35
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  Safety, energy efficiency, the fight against pollution… Decades of research under the auspices of the ECSC have resulted in a European know-how in the coal industry unequalled anywhere in the world. In the Union’s strategy for energy independence over the coming decades, ‘clean coal’ is set to be a valuable asset.
   
     
   

The ECSC Treaty is ending on a paradox. Over the last three decades its – successful – mission has been to manage the decline in the Union’s coal production, linked to the depletion of resources and growing difficulties of access to the European subsoil.

EU coal production fell from 200 million to 85 million tonnes between 1989 and 2000. Today, just four producing countries remain: Germany and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree Spain and France. Lignite production is also down, with Germany the biggest remaining producer, followed by Greece and, some way behind, Spain. With 240 million tonnes produced in 2000, lignite represents about 50 million tonnes of coal equivalent or ‘tce’.(1)

Timely excellence

At the same time, by virtue of its research programmes, the ECSC Treaty has brought continuous technological improvements in mining safety and yield, energy efficiency and clean combustion. ‘Europe leads the world when it comes to coal industry know-how,’ stresses Christian Cleutinx, director of conventional energy at the Commission’s Energy and Transport Directorate-General.

This high level of excellence is a major advantage in the 21st century economy. First of all, because coal remains an energy source of primary importance, not only at the global level – coal meets one-quarter of world’s energy needs – but for Europe too. Although the Union is producing less and less coal, it continues to consume a great deal. In 2000 it imported almost 160 000 million tonnes of coal, mainly to meet its thermal electricity production needs.

Also, the Union of 15 Member States is about to enlarge to include countries which are major coal producers and consumers – countries which are also facing problems of modernising, restructuring and scaling down their mining industries as well as improving their combustion plants. As stressed in the Green Paper Towards a European strategy for the security of energy supplies, published by the Commission in 2000, far from being an energy source of the past, coal is set to be of great strategic importance in electricity production over the coming decades.

‘It is a fuel which is in abundant supply in many regions of the world,’ stresses Christian Cleutinx. ‘The OECD estimates there are reserves of around 1 000 million tonnes, representing 200 years of world consumption at present rates. Unlike hydrocarbons, the many supply sites in themselves constitute a guarantee of stable prices and secure supplies.’ In technical and economic terms, coal is particularly interesting when used as a combined fuel with other solid fuels of less value (such as lignite and peat), heavy hydrocarbon derivates and biomass.

The use of these inexpensive energy sources must, however, respect one fundamental condition: respect for the environment. As a major source of SO2, NOx and CO2 - emissions, and thus seen as a major factor in climate warming, coal - and other solid fuels with which it may be combined - must be the subject of a major research and innovation effort if it is to qualify as a clean fuel.

ECSC achievements

This is a challenge which can be met and ECSC researchers have already laid down the foundations for doing so. Major technological advances have been made in two areas: PFBC or pressurised fluidised bed combined cycles and, most recently, integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC.(2)

Other research projects are also concerned with the concept of ‘clean coal’, in particular in the area of filtering and recycling systems for harmful atmospheric emissions, the ‘sequestration’ of CO2 emissions, and the co-combustion of solid fuels.

‘If we want this fuel to play its strategic role in terms of energy security, then it must meet the increasingly demanding environmental challenges posed by climate warming,’ stresses Andrew Minchener, member of the ECSC’s committee of experts on combustion and gasification. ‘If it is to retain its present leadership role in this technological sector, research on advanced combustion cycles must continue, in particular on the particularly efficient option of gasification.’

(1) Tonne of coal equivalent is one tonne of high-quality coal possessing a standard calorific value of 7 000 Kcal/kg.
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(2) PFBC: Pressurised fluidised bed combined cycle – IGCC: Integrated gasification combined cycle.
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Solid fuels

The Carnot Programme, launched in December 1998 and set to terminate at the end of this year, has been mainly concerned with the development of clean and efficient technologies for the combined combustion of coal with other solid fuels, such as lignite, peat, oil shale, the heavy derivates of petroleum products, and biomass.

As well as environmental issues and questions of efficiency, the Carnot Programme has also looked at the related technical and economic aspects of solid fuels, such as preparatory processing, storage, transport and waste disposal.

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An enlarged European coal area

Union enlargement will bring a considerable increase in coal reserves and its use as a European energy source. It will also bring an added environmental burden which requires urgent action. In 1998, when Union production was estimated at 158 million tce, the six candidate countries with coal reserves – principally Poland and the Czech Republic, and to a lesser degree Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia – produced a total of 167 million tce. Coal provides 65% of the electricity produced in the future Union members as a whole, compared with just 27% in the present 15 Member States.

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Two advanced technologies

The PFBC process involves feeding a current of air under pressure (12-16 bars) into a combustion chamber heated to 850°C, thereby creating turbulence in a bed of inert particles and cinders which starts to behave like a fluid. The coal is introduced into this fluidised bed, where it is burned with a calcium-based sorbent (such as lime). About 80% of the electrical energy generated by this combustion is obtained by circulating water through tubes located in the fluidised bed which fuel a conventional steam turbine. The gases emitted by the combustion are then cleaned and sent to a gas turbine which generates additional electricity, permitting a high thermal yield of around 44%.

In the IGCC process, the gasified coal fuels a Brayton cycle gas turbine, which is a particularly efficient system of electricity generation with low emission levels. Gasification provides up to 90% enhancement of the coal’s calorific capacity. This process also includes added electricity production through heat recovery by means of steam production fuelling a second turbine.

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To find out more:

Coal research at the Transport and Energy DG
Carnot Programme
Conclusions of the Commission’s Green Paper on Energy


Contact

Christian Cleutinx
Transport and Energy DG
christian.cleutinx@ec.europa.eu

 


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