Leveraging R&D Strength to a Sustainable Future for Coal
By Daniel Connell, CONSOL Energy Inc.
For a decade or more, coal has been a political football and a lightning rod for the unfolding transformation of the energy landscape. Massive geopolitical shifts and technological advances have left stakeholders asking: is there a sustainable future for coal? Just 20 years ago, coal accounted for over 50 percent of the electricity mix in the United States. Declining domestic coal demand has reduced that to roughly 20 percent in 2020. Pressures from competing energy resources, investors, government and social efforts are driving the imperative to find uses for coal other than traditional power generation markets in the U.S. It is more evident than ever that the industry must adapt and embrace new technology and new markets if coal mining is to survive through the next generation.
For coal to be sustained, a holistic approach is needed that innovates, optimizes and extracts value from every step along the coal value chain, including the mining process itself, coal preparation and beneficiation processes, transportation and end-use applications, while minimizing environmental impacts and creatively repurposing byproducts generated along the way. Government has placed considerable focus on regulating and developing technology to reduce emissions from power plants, with considerable success. However, until recently, relatively little focus was placed on other opportunities within the coal value chain, such as the prospect of taking advantage of coal’s unique chemistry for its use as a feedstock to develop advanced materials such as carbon fibers, carbon foam, composites and electrodes. The U.S. has the most abundant proven coal reserves of any country in the world2 and these applications have the potential to utilize this valuable national resource in an entirely different way, with net positives for domestic manufacturing, national security and the environment.
Moreover, coal remains the backbone of energy supply in much of the developing world and continues to be the largest source of primary energy in its two most populous countries – China and India.3 As such, there is a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. to play a leading role in developing, demonstrating and exporting technologies, such as waste coal beneficiation and carbon dioxide capture and storage, that can play a crucial role in transforming the sustainability profile of coal on a global scale. The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), leading academic institutions and private industry are a driving force in progressing and demonstrating these technologies for use in the U.S. and abroad.
CONSOL Energy, with its predecessors, has proudly been a coal industry leader since the Civil War. In the late 1940s, CONSOL opened its own research and development (R&D) facility and for many years was the only U.S. coal company operating a privately funded R&D center. CONSOL R&D made strides in many aspects of coal technology, including coal transport, coal liquefaction, coal cleaning, combustion, power plant emissions control and byproduct utilization. By the 2000s, CONSOL Energy was keenly focused on carbon capture and storage technology. The CONSOL R&D center closed in 2016 due to shifting company priorities. However, upon becoming an independent, stand-alone coal company in 2017, CONSOL reinvigorated efforts to innovate and develop advanced mining technologies, alternate uses of coal and other low-to-no emissions projects, with a focus on sustainably leading the transformation of a mature industry that still holds high potential to benefit society going forward. Several examples of these R&D initiatives are highlighted below.
First among these is our advanced, pressurized, fluidized bed combustion (PFBC) Power Plant project, which has received support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Coal FIRST Program. The program seeks to design an advanced coal-based power plant that can be commercially viable in the U.S. power generation market. The CONSOL-advanced PFBC project will be an approximately 300 MW (net), waste coal and biomass fueled plant equipped with carbon dioxide capture and storage. The project aims to capture and permanently sequester 97 percent of CO2 emissions, and to achieve net neutral or negative CO2 emissions via bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Other key features of the plant include zero liquid discharge, near zero emissions of regulated pollutants and a solid waste byproduct with potential commercial applications. The plant will likely be sited at or near CONSOL’s Pennsylvania Mining Complex, where integration with existing infrastructure enhances the project’s value and promotes sustainability of the power generation supply chain. A complete Front-End Engineering and Design (FEED) study is currently underway to evolve the design to a level of detail needed for construction of a prototype plant, and to identify challenges and opportunities associated with the project. If successful, construction of the plant could commence in 2024, with commission-ing in 2028.
This project will advance the state of carbon capture technology and will expand the understanding of carbon storage opportunities in the Northern Appalachian Basin. Importantly, the project will serve as a source of CO2-neutral power that is reliable, resilient and provides the baseload electricity that will continue to be needed to support the electric grid of the future.
In addition to the Coal FIRST project, CONSOL has been working with OMNIS Bailey, LLC (OMNIS) since 2016 to convert waste coal slurry into a high-quality solid carbon product as well as a mineral product for potential use as a soil amendment in agricultural applications. In 2017, a pilot plant was constructed at the Pennsylvania Mining Complex for process optimization and commercial testing. OMNIS is nearing completion on construction of the first commercial-scale refinery module, with expected commissioning in 2021.
Following successful demonstration, the plant is envisioned to expand to ultimately include eight modules producing as much as 200 tons per hour of refined carbon product from waste coal. If commercial-scale operations become successful, OMNIS could reduce or eliminate the need for future fine coal tailings impoundments, which promotes operational circularity, elimi-nates waste and minimizes physical and social risk associated with these facilities. We are also pursuing synergistic ways to integrate the OMNIS technology with CONSOL’s other R&D initiatives, including our advanced PFBC plant and coal-to-products projects.
Moving further downstream leads us to coal-to-products opportunities. Coal is typically used for electricity generation or steelmaking, but thanks to recent advancements and support from our partners and DOE, CONSOL is embarking upon groundbreaking new efforts to utilize coal in a variety of alternate, low-to-no-emissions applications.
CONSOL’s recent investment in Triadelphia, WV-based CFOAM high-lights an exciting opportunity to utilize the unique qualities of coal to produce high-performance carbon foam, for use in markets such as composite tooling, thermal insulation and fire-proofing. With a recent award from DOE, CFOAM will pursue a transformation in its manufacturing process from a more expensive batch process conducted at elevated pressures to a less expensive continuous process conducted at atmospheric pressures. If successful, this could lead to a disruptive reduction in CFOAM’s manufacturing cost and cycle time and increase in its capacity, providing a pathway to new markets like building and structural applications where volume and cost are paramount. These markets have potential to create meaningful demand for U.S. coal (i.e., tens to hundreds of millions of tons per year), preserving mining jobs and creating manufacturing jobs. Importantly, this will also create an entirely new environmental profile for coal, as carbon is not combusted but rather is incorporated as the key ingredient in the finished product.
Similarly, CONSOL also is partner-ing with a team led by Ohio University aiming to develop engineered composite materials, like high-performance decking boards, from coal. Ohio University studies show that using coal in the manufacture of composite building materials requires less energy – resulting in lower manufacturing costs and emissions – than manufacturing via current commercial alternatives. The initiative has the potential to open new, sustainable markets for U.S. coal. The global market for these types of plastic composite materials is expected to reach over $8 billion by 2022.4 If successful, coal plastic composite manufacturing could initially generate a new U.S. coal market of over three million tons annually, along with adding new manufacturing jobs. DOE has supported this work since 2019, and Ohio University was recently awarded two new DOE projects to expand the scope of its efforts to include piping and siding applications.
According to a 2019 National Coal Council report, “coal tonnage utilization of domestic U.S. coal for coal-to-products applications has the potential to be on the same order of magnitude as that projected for coal power generation applications in the coming years.”5 This not only has great implications for value creation, but it also creates a pathway to sustain current coal jobs and promote new manufacturing-type jobs while unlocking new social and environmental benefits from coal.
Thanks to years of innovation, technological advancements and partnerships between business, government and academia, much of the R&D work is underway. Continued support, cooperation and investment are needed. For a sustainable future for U.S. coal, it is imperative that this expanding knowledge and expertise be leveraged into solutions, and that the path continue to completion.
Daniel Connell is senior vice president of strategy for CONSOL Energy Inc.