WASHINGTON, April 14, 2016 - Even with the Paris Agreement in place, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that global coal-fired power generation will increase over the next few decades. So researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are looking for a cleaner way to use coal which could help reduce carbon emissions, while meeting the needs of a growing and increasingly industrialized world population.

Conventional coal-burning power plants typically have low efficiency, with only about 33 percent of the energy contained in the coal actually converted to electricity, However, MIT researchers have invented a process that potentially doubles coal’s fuel-to-electricity efficiency. This essentially equates to a 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions for a given amount of power produced.

The process, described in the Journal of Power Sources, combines two well-known technologies, coal gasification and fuel cells, into a single system. Coal gasification extracts burnable gaseous fuel from pulverized coal, rather than burning the coal itself. Fuel cells then produce electricity from the gaseous fuel by passing it through a battery-like system where the fuel reacts electrochemically with oxygen.

According to the researchers’ simulations, the proposed combined gasification and fuel cell system could achieve efficiencies as high as 55 to 60 percent.

The system would be more expensive than existing plants, the researchers say, but the initial capital investment could be paid off within several years due to the system’s state-of-the-art efficiency.

“The exploration of unconventional hybrid cycles represents the future of clean energy production in this country,” says David Tucker, a research scientist at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in West Virginia. “Many technologies that may seem unfeasible at first glance hold the greatest promise as solutions to difficult problems. The first step is always to evaluate the potential of these cycles,” as the MIT team has done, says Tucker.


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