Environment: Is clean coal a reality?

Donald Trump talks about "beautiful clean coal", but South Africa may be years ahead of USA in making the dream come true

Environment: Is clean coal a reality?

Professor Rosemary Falcon heads the Sustainable Coal Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, where the late Nelson Mandela studied law in the 1950s.

Falcon leads a team of nine academics, along with 20 Masters and doctoral students who, with their own laboratory at Wits, say they have proved conclusively that clean coal is not only possible, but among the cheapest ways to generate electricity on a continent where more than 600 million Africans live without power. "It starts by understanding that coal varies enormously," she said.

"Each region has a different recipe of minerals and fossil matter, and if you give me a lump of coal out of Kenya, the US, Europe, India or Colombia, I can probably tell you where it's from."

In North America, she said, coal was formed in hot, steamy swamps, and it burns rapidly. In the southern hemisphere, it was formed at the end of an ice age and burns for longer and at a higher temperature.  "An industrial boiler from Europe, fed with our coal, will melt because our product burns so hot. But we also have more ash that actually absorbs heat, making the fire less efficient. So one of the first steps is to alter the coal before you light the fire. Or build a boiler designed for each coal type." Coal in Africa and Latin America, Falcon claimed dated to the time of Gondwanaland, when the two were part of a single mega-continent.

Is coal ecofriendly?

Working with Falcon is Dr. Nandi Malumbazo who took her PhD in chemical engineering at Wits. "In Africa, the use of coal is growing and that's something we have to deal with," she says.

"The challenge is to burn it more cleanly and this starts at the mine with techniques we've developed to separate poor quality coal from the better stuff that is already less toxic.  You then crush it and remove elements that will not contribute to a good burn. Like unleaded petrol, you are starting from a better place. Less ash, less fumes, more heat, and a longer burn. From there we've done experiments and written up peer-reviewed research to show we can use it way cleaner than in most countries"

Coal Usage

South Africa gets more than 90% of its power from coal, in Botswana it is 100%, and both Kenya and Tanzania are building new coal-fired generators.

The same grade of coal extends to Brazil with 30-billion tons in the ground, while Colombia has one of the world's largest mines at Cerrejon on the Guajira Peninsula.

The Wits research has drawn praise from across the continent. Dr. Samson Bada of Nigeria has joined the team, along with Dr. Jacob Masiala from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both are working on ways to get the lights on in Africa and keep the air clean. There are also post-graduate staff and students from Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Mozambique.

"If we mix pulverised coal with bamboo, something that grows well in Africa, we take emission levels down even further," said Masiala. "Of course, a bamboo plantation also gives you carbon credits, and we can grow it on old mine sites to rehabilitate the ground. It's a winner on so many fronts."

However, for all its groundbreaking work, South Africa's clean coal is in trouble. "Funding has been difficult," said Falcon. The use of coal to generate electricity in Africa is at a high record, with new plants under way in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Mozambique, and South Africa. Bada has little time for those who condemn this.

The coming revolution in the developing world, according to Bada, was not about land, religion or politics, but a lack of jobs. "Africa is urbanizing faster than anywhere on the planet. And our urban youth are on the same Facebook and WhatsApp as kids in Chicago. They watch the same Big Bang Theory on TV and have the same aspirations."

Millions of school leavers, he said, can read and do algebra but have no work. The lack of industry, he said, was linked to electricity. Bada said he was a fan of wind and solar, but the technology was not yet there to industrialize a continent. "Solar doesn't work at night, and turbines stand idle when the wind doesn't blow," he said.

Bada argues "how do you run an operating theatre with that? How do you power a city, a school, the lift in a gold mine taking workers more than two miles underground? There has to be a baseload power supply and this can be complemented with solar. The industrial revolution and the growth of China and India has all been powered by coal. The good news is we can now burn it cleanly."

Bada said thousands of power stations around the world are still pumping out emissions from coal when it was possible to make them clean. "What holds up the process is not a lack of knowledge, but funding and political will. And every day we live with the status quo, people are forced to breathe dirty air. That is tantamount to a crime against humanity if we have the science but do nothing."

Clean coal alliance

The Wits faculty wants to build an Academic Clean Coal Alliance, or ACCA, a global network of researchers. "Whether you're an engineer, a geologist or a doctor of physics, if you share a passion for clean coal, you're welcome to join us," Falcon said. "Our concept is for a politically neutral group to include those in countries in Africa, Latin America, India and as far afield as Russia, the US and Europe." Falcon argues.

Falcon said she was working on sponsors and funding for the alliance, which, while academic, would offer associate membership to industry, government, and media.

If there is one thing that angers everyone at the faculty, it is those who say clean coal is a myth invented by Donald Trump and his allies in business. Falcon said they were either in denial or unaware of the truth.

"Tell me there's no such thing as unleaded petrol or painless dentistry and maybe I'll hear you out when you chant. In our grandparents' time all that was true, but today we have options. Fat-free yoghurt and cosmetics not tested on animals. And we have clean coal, provable, peer-reviewed and with experiments that can be replicated in any lab” explains the scientist.

"Here in South Africa, we are long past the stage of proving clean coal. Now we're looking at how to apply it, and especially for the coal types in Africa". The science, she said, was there. Clean coal is a reality and we must start using it now to make a better world."


Latin American Post | Geoff Hill