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New Study Examines How a Mushroom Might Make Coal Cleaner

Becca Schimmel

Kentucky is coal country, and is heavily reliant on the dirty fossil fuel for power. A study underway at Western Kentucky University is examining the effectiveness of a water-based clean coal solution.

The coal is treated with the solution at Big Rivers power plant in Ohio County, Kentucky. WKU partnered with Big Rivers and the state’s Cabinet for Economic Development to determine if the solution reduces carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen emissions.

Researchers at WKU are taking an enzyme from a mushroom and growing it in water. That solution is then sprayed on coal as it falls down a chute. The coal then sits for a few days before it’s burned.

Wei-Ping Pan is director of combustion science and environmental technology at WKU, and is helping lead the study. He’s been studying coal combustion and clean coal technology for about 30 years. Pan hopes the new technology will reduce the amount of coal needed to produce energy, which would reduce air pollution. Pan said Kentucky is a big coal producer, and that isn’t likely to change soon.

Credit Becca Schimmel
Wei-Ping Pan explaining the technology to a group from China.

“We still will have 30 percent electricity generated by burning coal, because the United States has the highest coal reserve available, based on the price, and also based on the availability,” Pan said.


Pan thinks the nation will rely on coal for about the next 50 years. He hopes the technology he's studying will make the transition to more renewable energy sources easier. He said the water-based solution isn’t new, as it was originally pioneered in Germany in 1990. It wasn’t successfully implemented at that time. However, it has been in use in Taiwan and China for a few years.


Pan believes everything has been done to reduce pollution mechanically, such as attaching technology to power plants that captures harmful pollutants--like CO2--after coal is burned. Pan said in order to keep reducing emissions, power plants need to start thinking about how to better clean the fuel before it’s burned.


That’s why he’s looking into whether this water-based solution will change the composition of the coal to reduce emissions and the amount of coal needed.


“So we already have all the air pollution control devices. What we need to do next is improve our combustion efficiency," Pan said.

Combustion efficiency means using less fuel to produce the same amount of energy. Pan says the goal of the water-based solution is to help burn coal more completely, allowing power plants to use less coal, while producing the same amount of energy.

Martin Cohron is the research support coordinator at WKU who designed the project and trained the operators.


He said this is the first time he’s seen the water-based solution technology used at a power plant the size of Big Rivers in Ohio County. It’s a single unit coal fired power plant, producing 417 megawatts daily. Cohron said it wouldn’t take him long to transport the equipment needed to set up the technology at a new plant.


"I can hook to the bumper hitch of this trailer and go to another power plant, and be up and running in probably two weeks,” Cohron said.


Cohron said the U.S. is burning coal cleaner than anywhere else in the world. He hopes this solution will reduce CO2 emissions by up to ten percent.

Credit Becca Schimmel
Water storage tanks.

Not everyone thinks it’s that simple. John Thompson is with the Clean Air Task Force, an organization focused on climate change, and climate-protecting technologies. While he agrees that the U.S. burns coal cleaner than other countries, he says that's only the case when it comes to conventional pollutants, like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

“But if you're looking only at carbon dioxide, it's all about the same because there are very few plants in the world that are capturing the CO2 from their emissions,” Thompson said.


Thompson said CO2 doesn’t recognize borders or boundaries; regardless of where it’s emitted, it warms the whole planet. He said it isn’t just coal that’s polluting the air, as natural gas plays a part as well. Thompson said fossil fuels, like coal, are going to be burned across the world in large quantities for a long time, and any research that aims to reduce pollutants is a good thing.


“The challenge is that those technologies today can be quite expensive. They don't have to be, but they often are. And so research aimed at lowering cost and improving performance is really vital,” Thompson said.


Credit Becca Schimmel
Belt running at testing site at Big Rivers D.B. Wilson power station.

Wei-Ping Pan believes the water-based clean coal technology should be seen as a way to ease the transition from relying on coal fired power plants to more renewable sources of energy. He said they should have the results in July. Then they’ll do an analysis, and determine what--if any--economic benefit would come from using the technology.

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