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It's A Gray Area: Could clean water come from coal?

March 05, 2011|By James P. Gray

This column a few years ago discussed nuclear power and how our country was underutilizing it in generating electricity.

A man who works for a company called ConvertCoal, Inc., or CCI, recently contacted me because of that article. The company, founded in 2005, claims to have a process that will enable it to generate petroleum, clean water and cleaner-burning coal fuel from the low-rank coal that is readily available here in the U.S.

There are certainly many subjects about which I have no particular expertise, and the mining and processing of coal are among them. But what this man was saying intrigued me, so I decided to pass along his thoughts to you.

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There are basically two types of coal in the world, high-rank coal and low-rank coal. High-rank coal is found deeper in the ground, which means it has been compressed by the weight of the mass of material above it and heated much more fully than low-rank coal. Thus there is less water in high-rank coal and that coal is also more concentrated, which in turn means that it takes less of it to run a power plant generator.

Since strip mining is not feasible because it is so deep, high-rank coal is also more expensive to bring to the surface, because the only practical way to mine high-rank coal is to use deep shafts and tunnels like those that trapped the miners in Chile. Unfortunately, that also makes the deadly "black lung disease" more prevalent due to the miners breathing more of the coal dust inside the mines.

About two-thirds of the Earth's known coal deposits are low-rank coal, and because it is cheaper and more plentiful, that is mostly what is used in the generation of electricity. In fact, about 35% of all the electricity generated in the United States is fueled by low-rank coal. But with the new process, according to CCI's brochures, that same low-rank coal can now be converted into a low-emission coal-char fuel, clean water and synthetic crude oil that can be refined into petroleum. CCI further says it can actually recover between a half to a full barrel of oil from every ton of coal that is run through its process.

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