3rd Low Rank Coal Symposium, Melbourne Australia

Last week I returned from the 3rd Low Rank Coal Symposium in Melbourne which I was fortunate to be able to attend as part of the Victorian state government’s Young Energy Professional programme. This initiative sponsored 23 young people in coal research or industry to attend the symposium, including Kyle Nicol and myself from the Clean Coal Centre, and incorporated a great programme of events and group activities aimed at helping people starting out in the industry make contact with each other and more established figures. Getting the most out of the busy schedule set by both the YEP programme and the symposium while recovering from jet lag made for a somewhat tiring but ultimately rewarding week.

What sets the high moisture, low calorific value low rank coals apart from most other fossil fuels is both their significance as a cheap, local energy source (being uneconomic to transport), and their greater need for technologies which can increase their value and reduce their environmental impact. In the range of regional perspectives which kicked-off the symposium it was abundantly clear that for many countries, low rank coal has a unique status as the only secure, domestic energy supply. Developing economies such as Turkey, Pakistan, and India, are keen to further develop their low rank coal resource as a means of meeting accelerating energy demand while reducing their reliance on expensive imported natural gas or hard coal, or in the case of Brazil, a reliance on sometimes unreliable hydropower. On the other hand, countries such as Germany, China and the USA with already well-developed lignite sectors are interested in exporting the high efficiency technologies they have developed for better exploitation of this often problematic fuel. Bringing together the complementary needs of some of these players is therefore one of the major roles the symposium is able to play.

Of course, the particular significance of the event to the state of Victoria is the vast resource of lignite or ‘brown coal’ found in the Latrobe valley, around 100 km east of Melbourne. Although extremely high in moisture, the coal is low in ash and sulphur and is found in huge seams which lie only a few metres beneath the surface. A symposium-organised trip to the huge open pit mine and power stations at Loy Yang allowed us to see the scale of operations in the valley for ourselves. However, given that power demand in the state is actually falling at the moment, the government is keen to find other means of extracting value from this mineral resource which are likely to include upgrading the coal into higher value products such as liquid or gaseous fuels, fertilisers or other chemicals.

Among the upgrading technologies showcased at the symposium were new gasification processes developed by the Shenhua Group in China, where coal conversion projects are now multiplying faster than anywhere else. A particularly futuristic gasification concept was also presented by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, who are proposing converting Victorian brown coal to hydrogen gas to be shipped to Japan for use in fuel cell vehicles and other applications. Combining this technology with CCS could provide a completely carbon neutral source of transport fuel. Other approaches avoid gasification entirely, such as a process from Ignite Energy Resources, in which a catalytic reactor converts coal slurry to a synthetic crude oil and a PCI for blast furnaces.

Power generation was not neglected, with a detailed description of a successful lignite drying technology employed at a US power plant demonstrating both economic and efficiency benefits. However, there was a particular buzz around Australian research institute CSIRO’s presentation of the direct injection coal engine, or DICE, as a locally developed technology which has the potential to make a big impact on coal power generation. While the use of coal slurries in diesel engines is not a new idea, optimising the process through use of a micronised carbon slurry is one of the keys to producing large, reliable units. The higher efficiency power cycle would reduce CO2 emissions by up to 30%, and a 30 MW demonstration is planned for the next few years. A CCC report on this technology is forthcoming.

The potential for adding carbon capture was mentioned by most of these technology providers, but CCS also featured prominently in the agenda in its own right, and there was a general consensus that the long-term future of coal depends upon successfully harnessing this technology. Using relatively cheap lower rank coals can help offset the considerable capture costs, and the coal power CCS demonstrations closest to completion, Boundary Dam in Canada and Kemper County in the USA, will both be using lignite. Australia is also a world leader in CCS research, with several large-scale capture or storage projects operating and proposed. For the Latrobe valley, the CarbonNet project is investigating the possibility of connecting a network of the brown coal users in the region to a common CO2 transport grid and offshore storage sites. Fortunately, many of the lignite upgrading technologies proposed for the region actually provide a purer stream of CO2 which would lend itself to capture projects.

Given that the lack of development of both upgrading and CCS projects rests mainly on financial concerns rather than any technological barriers, it was highly useful to hear some financial perspectives in the symposium. A common theme was that these relatively high-risk and capital intensive projects will always require considerable government support to get off the ground; particularly in bridging the so-called ‘valley of death’ between a technologically proven concept and a commercial reality. For CCS in particular, there is no real incentive for investment without policies which impose some kind of meaningful pricing mechanism on carbon emissions, although it was interesting to hear that some companies are already factoring in significant future carbon prices into their investments.

With any such government action ultimately dependent on public opinion, and the real challenges to coal projects posed by their unpopularity, a session on improving public acceptance was also an important addition to the agenda. Perhaps most interesting was the cautionary tale presented by Linc Energy’s underground coal gasification project in Queensland, where mismanagement of fears of groundwater contamination eventually led to scrapping of the project and a costly obligation to future monitoring of the site. However, the strong emphasis on improving communication also reminded me of the Janschwalde CCS project in Germany, where efforts to engage with the community did little to quell the public opposition which contributed to its eventual cancellation. As the other members of my YEP group also concluded in our presentation to the symposium, the issue of public approval in the coal industry goes beyond individual projects, and really needs to be tackled at a larger-scale for real, policy-influencing progress to be made.

While in Melbourne, Kyle and I also took the opportunity to visit HRL, who lead Australia’s membership of the Clean Coal Centre and allowed us to host the first ‘asia-pacific timezone’ webinar from their offices. Covering both our recent areas of research (oxyfuel combustion and high-temperature steels) this is now available to watch on the webinar page of the website