A move to the chemical sector can level the playing field for coal in terms of both efficiency and emissions. The reason for the diminished efficiency advantage between coal and gas is the endothermic nature of reforming. Regardless of hydrocarbons, similar chemicals (oxygen and steam) are required for reforming. These chemicals reform the char (carbon) and locked-in moisture of coal into syngas the same way they would reform natural gas. Coal reforming is only slightly less efficient than gas reforming because of the need to cool the gas to filter out the impurities. Coal gasification is becoming increasingly competitive. China is already using it to create methanol to be blended with gasoline (sometimes illegally). Therefore, it’s reasonable to believe that methanol would be strictly dominant if it could be used in a SOFC, which is twice as efficient as an engine.
The figure below quantifies the supply-side and efficiency advantages of an economy-wide implementation of thermal hydrogen. More technical details on this model are provided in the publication which has been peer-reviewed.[i]
Figure 2: Energy supply curves of the U.S. energy economy: a) 2014, b) thermal hydrogen.
Since the discovery of the value of coal, gas and oil, each has taken its turn facing the beginning of the end. Again and again, innovation finds ways to do it better – to increase supply and efficiency while reducing emissions. What is required is an open mind to view carbon for its energy density and versatility rather than as something inherently dirty. Thermal hydrogen shows that the only thing inherently dirty about fossil fuels, including coal, is how cheap they are. Therefore, it is quite possible that this is just the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.
Moore, J, “Thermal Hydrogen: An Emissions Free Hydrocarbon Economy,” International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 42 (2017) 12047- 12063.
Jared Moore, Ph.D. is an independent energy technology/policy adviser and president of Meridian Energy Policy.