What’s Clean Coal?

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Clean coal refers to making coal mining and power plants more environmentally friendly and efficient. However, carbon dioxide and harmful emissions are still released, and coal is a finite resource. Environmentalists argue that investing in renewable energy is better than investing in cleaner technology for fossil fuels. Coal can be chemically washed to remove impurities, and power plants can use filters to clean their exhaust. Gasified coal is a cleaner alternative, where coal is turned into a gaseous fuel and harmful carbon dioxide is extracted.

“Clean coal” is an industry term that refers to increasing the efficiency of coal mining, making coal-based power plants more environmentally friendly, and/or making coal more efficient from the point of view of fuel consumption and clean combustion. Since coal contributes a large volume of carbon dioxide to the earth’s atmosphere each year, the idea of ​​cleaning up coal is quite appealing to many consumers and governments. In any discussion of clean coal, it’s important for people to remember that carbon dioxide is still released into the environment when coal is used as fuel, and other harmful emissions are created as well. Also, because coal is a fossil fuel, global reserves could eventually run out.

Many environmentalists call the concept “greenwashing,” meaning that companies are using the idea to look better rather than supply fuel that is cleaner. They argue that because coal is a fossil fuel, investing in cleaner technology is not as good as investing in renewable energy. Most environmentalists would also agree that if coal were to be used as fuel, however, it could also be used cleanly.

The creation of coal began millions of years ago, when decaying plant and animal matter began to compress, eventually forming the world’s coal and oil deposits. Coal has been used as fuel for centuries, ever since humans realized it was burnable. It appears naturally in large deposits of brown to black flaky material, which are mined in large volumes.

Coal mining and processing can lead to pollution, just like many industrial processes do. Making the mining process cleaner and more efficient is one way to create cleaner coal. Additionally, many countries now chemically wash their coal to remove some impurities. Doing this before burning the coal ensures that impurities are not released into the atmosphere, although the chemicals that are cleaned up still need to be treated appropriately so they don’t enter the environment.

Since most modern coal is burned in power plants to generate electricity, making power plants cleaner and more efficient is also an important part of clean coal. Coal-fired power plants are often old and highly inefficient, as coal is cheap and readily available, making increasing efficiency not financially logical. Many countries have begun requiring power plants to clean the air in their exhaust stacks with filters before releasing it, and for power companies to take steps to ensure that the energy in the coal is fully utilized when it is burned.

Another type of fuel that is often included in this category is not coal at all, but an entirely new product known as gasified coal. Gasified coal has been treated to turn it into a gaseous fuel, such as methane or hydrogen, while extracting most of the harmful carbon dioxide. The fuel is burned for energy, resulting in cleaner, more environmentally friendly coal-based energy. Since natural gas prices began to skyrocket in the late 1990s, gasified coal has begun to attract attention.
To produce this fuel, coal is mixed with a catalyst and subjected to high levels of heat and steam. This causes a chemical reaction that separates the coal into the hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other inorganic solids that it seeps through. Both hydrogen and methane can be used as fuels, while carbon dioxide is often injected deep into the ground or otherwise disposed of. In theory, a coal-fired power plant could become carbon neutral using this clean coal technology. This process can also produce liquid fuels from coal.

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