Coal is still king.

Coal generation in the U.S. dropped a bit recently, but that was not due to a national rejection of coal power -- it was due to an increase in natural gas usage and a jump in hydro and wind power.

Coal accounted for 45 percent of the U.S. energy mix in 2010, and despite aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standards bringing on significant amounts of solar and wind -- coal is not going away anytime soon. Yes, it's difficult to get a new coal plant permitted in the U.S., but there are still about 600 operating coal plants in this country. And plenty more in China, India, Japan, and Germany and most every country in the world.

We can't just close coal plants down. And renewables aren't scaling fast enough to matter, yet.

If you don't buy the concept of anthropogenic global warming, it's still reasonable to accept that coal plants pollute air and water and that minimizing that damage is a responsible course of action. If you do accept anthropogenic global warming, it makes sense to minimize its likely cause at its source: the coal smokestack.

How do you combat coal-based emissions on a budget? That's the dilemma with carbon capture. The problem is how to do it without running up expenses that will make China, India, the United States and Europe retreat behind years of prototype trials.

"The reality is that in the U.S., half of our electricity comes from coal. And China and India are largely dependent on coal. People are using it. So my point of view is instead of saying that we shouldn't burn coal, let's instead find a way to make coal as environmentally acceptable as possible," said Stanford University research professor Sally Benson, Director of the Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP).

The Steven Chu-led DOE just announced a $41M investment in 16 projects for carbon capture. The projects "are focused on reducing the energy and cost penalties associated with applying currently available carbon capture technologies to existing and new power plants." according to the DOE website.

Existing CO2 capture systems use large amounts of energy. The aim of the DOE program is to remove 90 percent of the CO2 with no more than a 35 percent premium to the cost of the electricity generated by the plant.

Thus far, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has been concerned primarily with research -- very little has been done about actually putting the technology to real use.

The technology for separating CO2 from emissions is not really the problem. Storing it permanently is. The most common storage process involves using a liquid solvent to bind with the CO2. The emission gases are then collected, chilled and mixed with the solvent, which captures the CO2 in a chemical reaction. By transforming into a more solid state, the CO2 can be separated from other gases. It later gets reheated, which makes the solvent and the CO2 divide. The CO2 then goes into storage, while the solvent can be reused. Other methods include absorbents, selectively permeable membranes, and cooling down the flue gases to force CO2 to condense. 

There's also the issue of whether the CO2 can be effectively sequestered in geologic formations without leakage and without contaminating water supplies.

Here is a list of the projects selected for negotiation of award, from the DOE website:


Novozyme (Franklinton, N.C.) -- an integrated bench-scale system that combines the attributes of the bio-catalyst, carbonic anhydrase, and ultrasound technology for reducing the energy required to remove the captured CO2 from the solvent.

Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group (Barberton, Ohio) -- The project will identify chemical additives that will improve overall performance of B&W’s amine-based CO2 capture technology.  

Battelle (PNNL) (Richland, Wash.) --The bench-scale project investigates new organic-based solvents designed specifically for capturing post-combustion CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. 

Carbon Capture Scientific (Pittsburgh, Pa.) --This project will perform bench-scale development and testing of a novel solvent-based CO2 scrubbing technology, known as Gas Pressurized Stripping (GPS).  

GE Global Research (Niskayuna, N.Y.) -- This project will continue research and bench-scale testing of a novel CO2 capture solvent, aminosilicone.


W.R. Grace (Columbia, Md.) -- The  proposed project will develop a cost-effective CO2 capture process known as pressure swing adsorption (PSA), which utilizes rapid pressure changes to capture and release CO2.

Georgia Tech Research Corp. (Atlanta, Ga.) -- A technology using a rapid temperature change -- referred to as rapid temperature swing adsorption (RTSA) --  is being investigated for CO2 capture. The CO2 is captured on hollow fibers loaded with silica-supported adsorbents. 

InnoSepra (Bridgewater, N.J.) -- This process utilizes sorbents with much lower CO2 capture energy requirements compared to competitive processes and has been successfully demonstrated at the lab scale to obtain greater than 99 percent CO2 purity, and more than 90 percent CO2 recovery.

Research Triangle Institute (Research Triangle Park, N.C.) -- The proposed project will develop an advanced, solid sorbent, known as Molecular Basket Sorbent (MBS), for CO2 capture. Key to this project is the optimization and production scale-up of advanced MBS materials in fluidizable form and the development of an associated fluidized-bed process technology.

TDA Research, Inc. (Wheat Ridge, Colo.) -- The applicant proposes to develop a low-cost, high-capacity CO2 adsorbent and demonstrate its technical and economic viability for post-combustion CO2 capture for existing pulverized coal-fired power plants.

University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, N.D.) -- The objective of this project is to scale up and demonstrate a hybrid solid sorbent technology for CO2 capture from coal combustion-derived flue gas.


GE Global Research (Niskayuna, N.Y.) -- The project will focus on developing novel polymer membranes at bench scale, including modifying the properties of the polymer in a coating solution and fabricating highly engineered porous hollow fiber supports that have the potential to meet DOE’s CO2 capture goals. 

Fuel Cell Energy, Inc. (Des Plaines, Ill.) -- The proposed project goal is to verify that the applicant’s patented membrane-based Direct FuelCell (DFC) can achieve at least 90 percent CO2 capture from flue gas of an existing PC plant with no more than 35 percent increase in the COE. 

Membrane Technology and Research, Inc. (Menlo Park, Calif.) -- This project will focus on novel membrane designs that will result in reductions in membrane cost, system complexity, footprint, and pressure drop for very large membrane-based CO2 capture projects. 

Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio) -- The objective of this proposed project is a cost-effective design and manufacturing process for new membrane modules that separate CO2 from flue gas. The membranes consist of a thin selective inorganic layer embedded in a polymer structure so that it can be made in a continuous manufacturing process.

William Marshall Rice University (Houston, Texas) -- Researchers will construct and test at the bench-scale a novel CO2 capture process which includes combining the absorber and stripper columns into a single integrated unit. The two functions of this integrated unit are separated by a ceramic membrane which enhances the capture of the CO2 from the flue gas and the production of a concentrated stream of CO2 for storage.

And an Actual Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Facility

Today marked a groundbreaking moment for building the first large-scale industrial carbon capture and storage (ICCS) facility in the U.S. in Decatur, Illinois. With $141 million in funding from the 2009 ARRA economic stimulus legislation, the project looks to capture and store one million tons of CO2 per year produced from turning corn into ethanol fuel from the nearby Archer Daniels Midland biofuels plant. 

The ADM project is designed to store approximately 2,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide per day in the saline Mount Simon Sandstone formation at depths of approximately 7,000 feet. The plant is supposed to be in operation in late summer 2013.


When it comes to incumbent energy players, especially coal and natural gas plants -- the only motivations are policy, legal frameworks, and cost. To ignore these factors or gloss over them sets CCS up forever to be the technology of the future. No coal plant owner would institute this type of technology without a clean energy mandate or carbon tax in place.