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Advanced Imaging Magazine

Updated: January 12th, 2011 09:49 AM CDT

Searching for Cleaner Fuels

Department of Energy scientists use high-speed imaging as a tool to fight global warming
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By Barry Hochfelder

It probably comes as a surprise to most people that coal is still a major energy force in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the average U.S. household uses several tons of coal each year, without ever seeing it. It’s the most abundant fossil fuel we have.

“Basically, more than half of the electricity in the United States comes from coal energy,” says Franklin Shaffer, an Engineer at the National Energy Testing Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh, Pa. “I don’t know if that’s projected to change a lot. It’s still a huge energy force. The U.S. has more energy in coal than Saudi Arabia does in oil.”

The problem, of course, is that the burning of these fossil fuels releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. One of the major greenhouse gases contributing to the global-warming crisis, CO2 has long been the focus of scientists looking to develop more efficient and advanced technologies to reduce and eventually eliminate the gas as a byproduct from the use of fossil fuels. New technologies are available that can remove up to 90 percent of CO2 and 99 percent of other pollutants that previously would have been released into the air.

One such technology is called gasification. The basics of gasification—Integrated Combined Cycle Gasification (ICCG)—have been known and understood for more than a century. It was originally developed in the 1800s to produce town gas for lighting and cooking. Electricity and natural gas later replaced town gas for these applications. The NETL, part of the DOE’s national laboratory system, has been taking a closer look at the technology with a goal of further enhancing its reliability and performance in advanced ICCG power plants.

“During the gasification process, coal is pulverized into microscopic particles, typically around 100 microns in diameter,” Shaffer explains. “The particles are chemically processed in a large gasifier chamber, sometimes more than a meter in diameter and 20 meters high.

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