The future of coal is, in many ways, contradictory. While countries such as the UK and Germany look to replace a reliance on coal with renewable power and clean energy sources, other nations are doubling down on their dependence on the energy source. Coal accounts for 14% of China’s energy mix, for instance, and in its Coal 2018 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted that coal would be required to meet 23% of the world’s energy needs by 2023.

IEA director Keisuke Sadamori explained this phenomenon with a “two worlds” philosophy, where countries with established coal-burning infrastructure, such as the UK, are able to look beyond coal and consider alternative energy sources, as they have benefitted from centuries of productivity and prosperity as a result of burning coal. However, countries that have not yet completed an industrial revolution, or are still in the midst of an energy transition, remain reliant on coal, and so attempts to phase out coal across the world could ultimately harm a significant number of people, despite the environmental arguments in favour of replacing the energy source.

As a result, many have advocated for a balanced approach, where coal remains a part of the global energy mix, but the means of mining, processing and burning coal is optimised to eliminate waste and minimise environmental damage. One such solution comes from, US-based Clean Coal Technologies (CCT) which is developing its Pristine-M technology, a gasification process that could improve the efficiency of coal-burning plants by 33%, and help reduce the environmental footprint of this vital energy source.

The Pristine-M process

CCT’s solution consists of a three-step process: first, mined coal is devolatised, where volatile residues of oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen are driven off the coal; then, the coal is dried at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit to remove excess moisture from the coal; and finally, the “vapour phase deposition” process causes the volatile matter to be absorbed back into the pores of the coal from which the moisture was driven off. In this way, the moisture within the coal, which interferes with its ability to be efficiently burned to provide energy, is removed without compromising the structural integrity of the coal.

“After [the coal] has been mined you process it through our technology, [which] removes a certain percentage of the moisture from the coal,” said CCT COO and CFO Aiden Neary. “That percentage is really dependent on what moisture content the end user wishes to keep, but we can take the moisture from 30% moisture down to below 5% if required.

“The coal is cultured with a heavy hydrocarbon, which makes it hydrophobic, makes it stable, and produces a dust-free by-product. The reason this is important is you are increasing the BTU value of the coal by about 33%.”

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The BTU value of the coal refers to how much energy can be produced from combustion, and increasing this figure is critical to ensuring efficient coal production. Much of the company’s work has been completed in the Powder River Basin in the US state of Wyoming, where coal has a BTU value of around 8,800 and a moisture content of anything between 25% and 32%, so the process could yield significant results in the local area.

The technology builds on an earlier process, known simply as Pristine, which CCT president and CEO Robin Eves described as the “Rolls Royce” of clean coal, as it “can do absolutely everything”. However, this led to a complex and expensive process, which Eves said was ultimately a deterrent for potential partners and investors.

“We were at a conference in India in 2011, and we presented the Pristine technology there,” he said, describing a meeting with Indian energy major Jindal Steel and Power, who asked for a simpler, more streamlined technology. “And that became Pristine M, and what it did is it cut the costs from about $120m for a one million tonne facility down to about $40m. Jindal immediately took a licence from us, and that was before a single rivet had been put into the technology.”

Local support and a modular design

The support from industry majors such as Jindal has been a key feature of the process, which has benefitted from collaboration with a range of other groups, including the University of Wyoming.

“The university had the benefit of looking at all the science, the physics and the engineering,” said Eves. “They looked at the package and from that package they came up with what we think now will be the final, very comprehensive design, which we are now beginning to put together.”

The university became involved in the project following the construction of a two-and-a-half tonne test facility in Oklahoma, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the Pristine-M technology, but was limited in scale by local laws which prevented the testing of coal imported from foreign countries. With the support of the university, CCT moved the facility to Fort Union in Wyoming, where it quickly gained support from a number of other local powers, which helped the project to transition from effective theory to practical success, the stumbling block for many new technological innovations.

“The local politicians in Gillette and the Governor of Wyoming are putting together a package whereby we’ll be in next year’s budget,” said Eves. “What we’re building now is the second-generation test facility, which is incorporating all of the University of Wyoming’s upgrades and suggestions [and] they have people on the ground there overseeing the work.”

The state government has made sweat equity investments to help fund the next stage of CCT’s development, the construction of a commercial-scale facility, alongside 25% of the annual budget from the University of Wyoming. While it is unclear how long this next step will take, Eves is optimistic that the pieces are in place to deliver on the technology’s lofty potential, and that widespread support has helped the company sidestep many of the more challenging aspects of developing the technology.

“One of the largest challenges is scaling from a small pilot plant to a one million or two million tonne facility,” said Eves. “There are huge engineering risks, huge financial risks, huge timing risks, so our design is modular; our scale up is about ten-to-one, which any engineer will tell you is not even worth ticking a box for that because it scales up.”

Pragmatic approach and universal benefits

What is striking about CCT and its approach, however, is an honesty about the role of coal in the world’s energy mix, and a pragmatism with regards to balancing energy need and environmental protection

“We are not advocating an increase use in coal,” said Neary. “What we are is a technology company that acknowledges and recognises the fact that coal is here, and it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.”

He also pointed out that the fact that Pristine-M removes dust from the coal burning process, it has the potential to improve the environmental performance of the energy source.

“Last year alone, almost eight billion tonnes of coal was consumed primarily for energy production,” he said. “That number as has grown over the years, and to all intents and purposes and looks like it will continue to grow across countries like China and India. It is not about producing a clean coal, per se, there is no such thing … we actually produce a cleaner coal for energy production.”

This sense of perspective underpins much of the company’s work, and helps deliver what it hopes will be benefits across the coal supply chain. Neary noted that by improving the heating potential of coal, less coal is required to be transported from mine to facility, cutting down on fuel costs and harmful emissions associated with transportation; he estimated that a coal delivery of three million tonnes today could be reduced to a delivery of just 2.2 million tonnes when treated with Pristine-M. This shift could be significant for the coal industry, where the cost of transporting coal can be up to four times as high as the cost of the coal itself.

As a result, CCT’s technology is not only a series of improvements to the efficiency of coal burning, but could improve the efficiency of the entire supply chain.

“We’ve tried to do every single thing to mitigate or eliminate any concerns about the effectiveness of this technology,” said Neary. “We’ve got a very strong platform for this launch, both domestically in the US, but also globally.”