Managing Wastes From Coal

Burning coal, such as for power generation, gives rise to a variety of wastes which must be controlled or at least accounted for.
So-called 'clean coal' technologies are a variety of evolving responses to late 20th century environmental concerns, including that of global warming due to carbon dioxide releases to the atmosphere.
However, many of the elements have in fact been applied for many years, and they will be only briefly mentioned here:
  • Coal cleaning by 'washing' has been standard practice in developed countries for some time. It reduces emissions of ash and sulfur dioxide when the coal is burned.
  • Electrostatic precipitators and fabric filters can remove 99% of the fly ash from the flue gases – these technologies are in widespread use.
  • Flue gas desulfurisation reduces the output of sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere by up to 97%, the task depending on the level of sulfur in the coal and the extent of the reduction.
  • It is widely used where needed in developed countries.
  • Low-NOx burners allow coal-fired plants to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 40%. Coupled with re-burning techniques NOx can be reduced 70% and selective catalytic reduction can clean up 90% of NOx emissions.
  • Increased efficiency of plant – up to 46% thermal efficiency now (and 50% expected in future) means that newer plants create less emissions per kWh than older ones.
  • Advanced technologies such as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) and Pressurised Fluidised Bed Combustion (PFBC) enable higher thermal efficiencies still – up to 50% in the future.
  • Ultra-clean coal (UCC) from new processing technologies which reduce ash below 0.25% and sulfur to very low levels mean that pulverised coal might be used as fuel for very large marine engines, in place of heavy fuel oil.
  • There are at least two UCC technologies under development.
  • Wastes from UCC are likely to be a problem.
  • Gasification, including underground coal gasification (UCG) in situ, uses steam and oxygen to turn the coal into carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
  • Sequestration refers to disposal of liquid carbon dioxide, once captured, into deep geological strata.

Some of these impose operating costs and energy efficiency loss without concomitant benefit to the operator, though external costs will almost certainly be increasingly factored in through carbon taxes or similar which will change the economics of burning coal.

However, waste products can be used productively. In 1999 the EU used half of its coal fly ash and bottom ash in building materials (where fly ash can replace cement), and it used 87% of the gypsum from flue gas desulfurisation.

Carbon dioxide from burning coal is the main focus of attention today, since it is implicated in global warming, and the Kyoto Protocol requires that emissions decline, notwithstanding increasing energy demand.

Carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) technologies are in the forefront of measures to enjoy 'clean coal'. CCS involves two distinct aspects: capture, and storage.

The energy penalty of CCS is generally put at 20-30% of electrical output, though since no full commercial systems are yet in operation, this is yet to be confirmed. US and European figures below suggest a small or even negligible proportion.