Billings Gazette: New take on clean coal technology presented at Montana Energy Conference

BILLINGS — Numerous efforts to squeeze clean-burning fuels from coal have hit the drawing board ever since OPEC started flexing its muscles in the 1970s.

After years of research, scientists and engineers have learned that converting coal into liquid and gaseous fuels is expensive and far from environmentally benign.

But a different take of clean-coal technology was presented Tuesday during the opening day of the three-day Montana Energy Conference in Billings. The concept, presented by officials from LP Amina, could even help extend the life of the Colstrip coal-fired power plants, while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions and generating valuable industrial products at a reasonable cost, supporters said.

Bill Williams described LP Amina’s process as a “poor man’s coal gasification project” because it improves the coal’s quality, while also capturing valuable components from the fuel. LP Amina got its start in China in 2007 as a producer of pollution-control technologies. The company now has offices in the United States and China.

“It’s a fairly simple process. What we try to do is take the coal apart and get the most value out of it,” Williams said.

Here’s a brief description of how it works: Coal is heated to remove moisture and boost its heat content. The heating process also generates synthetic gas that can be captured to fuel an engine or a gas-fired power plant.

The process also generates “aromatics” such as benzene, toluene and other valuable hydrocarbons that can be captured and used to boost octane in gasoline or in other industrial processes. Finally, carbon dioxide generated by the process can be captured and used for enhanced oil recovery or other processes.

Mercury and sulfur, two pollutants associated with coal burning, are also removed during the process, Williams said.

Previous coal gasification projects have carried multibillion-dollar price tags. But Williams said a plant capable of processing 600 tons of coal per hour could be built for a price of around $500 million.

Williams said LP Amina’s process has been tested at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. Recently the company received funding from the North Dakota Industrial Commission, Basin Electric and the North American Coal Council to conduct a feasibility study in Beulah, North Dakota.

Williams cautioned that using LP Anima’s process at Colstrip is “hypothetical” at this time. But in theory, the process could help the operators of Colstrip to achieve a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, he said.

He said the process can be used in conjunction with a combined-cycle natural gas generating facility, or even with a large wind farm.

“It shows a middle way,” Williams said. “You can have sustainable and you can have cheap, but until now you couldn’t have both. This shows there are solutions.”

Williams said the concept has been presented to some, but not all, of Colstrip’s owners.