The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 9, 2014

Can flue gas purification provide a lifeline for coal?

By Dr. V. Sahadevan
Guest Column

— The talk by Appalachian Power’s President and COO Charles Patton on the future of the coal and coal-burning electricity production at the recent Beckley Rotary Club meeting helped me to think about how we can persuade everybody involved in this field, the coal producers and users, the EPA, the Congress and the national and international agencies working on clear air environment, governments and other entities, to work together for the betterment of our future use of coal.

It is a burning issue for states like West Virginia.

Borrowing the thoughts in Mr. Patton’s presentation, let us please not make the coal industry a dying one but a thriving one with the help of new technologies as in the accompanying graphic from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on alternative flue gas purification by electron beam radiation. It illustrates the distribution of electron beam flue gas purification centers in the world as of 2007. The IAEA has a mandate to sponsor peaceful use of atomic energy and this is one of them.

With the aid of leaders like Mr. Patton and those who make their living from coal-producing industries, and with the help of newer technologies like the flue gas purification by electron beam radiation and using the flue gas to produce various useful byproducts like fertilizers and converting its carbon dioxide into food for human consumption, we can reach this goal. In this instance, the millions and billions of tons of flue gas we produce becomes a valuable byproduct of coal burning and not an environmental pollutant that harms our everyday life and leaves the earth ravaged for future generations. Yes, we have proven technologies to remake coal as a thriving industry.

We can convince the EPA that the flue gas can be made a valuable commodity; it can be converted to fertilizers and food for human consumption. Without controversies and political duels, we can make a bright future for industries that produce and use coal. We can find ways and means for all of us as we work together toward a common goal.

It is the case I made to Mr. Patton. Science and technology have no political divisions. Many will find it an attractive alternative to divisive debates on coal. The people involved with the coal industry will find it as a creative alternative and will support it. The EPA will be happy and will find ways to be supportive as well. There will be debates, but those involved will not be immovable adversaries but torch-bearers of innovative industrial development that creates more jobs and keeps the air we breathe clean.   

The accompanying IAEA world map of 2007 shows six electron beam flue gas treatment plants in operation, three in the design phase, and 10 pilot plants including the two plants in the United States that did not thrive as in other countries. We have the most advanced technology in the atomic field and in building electron beam accelerators, but we neglected this field while other countries have developed it further since the idea was conceived.

We can improve the accelerator technology for electron beam production for flue gas radiation faster than most other nations. The Los Alamos National Laboratory has even produced systems for alpha radiation from the nuclear waste for carbon monoxide production from carbon dioxide. The ultimate goal is the capture of the CO2 from the flue and its conversion to environmentally compatible commodities to serve our daily lives, like its use as a natural gas and in food production. We have the technology to convert the CO2 in the flue gas to edible biomass with the aid of nature’s photosynthetic process using CO2, water and sunlight.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Energy has set aside $120 million for accelerated photosynthesis of biomass from CO2, water and sunlight. Its research and development is in full swing at the California Institute of Technology.

As a byproduct of Appalachian coal, the flue gas CO2 is an ideal source for similar CO2 biomass production in farming towers distributed much like power-producing windmill farms. Life on earth was kindled by this well-known Calvin-Benson CO2 fixation. The flue gas from the chimneys of Appalachian power plants deserves equal economic stimulation. Mr. Patton can help to persuade the EPA and the Obama administration to help to capture the flue gas CO2 for biomass production just like the accelerated photosynthesis at Caltech.   

The $250 million costs for a small plant’s modernized operation as presented by Mr. Patton is not a big sum when compared to his projected billions of dollars in costs for alternatives. Still, it is a huge sum when compared to the $37.4 million capital cost for implementing the electron beam radiation at a small plant shown in the IAEA’s accompanying chart.

So please, let us all work together toward a better future for coal and its related industries in our state and elsewhere without polluting our environment. Let us be a facilitator and a leader in this new industrial development for coal and create jobs and opportunities for many around us. Let us develop this industry and help other nations to reap the benefits from such developments that will also help our economy to thrive from its operations both at home and abroad.

I think most if not all in the audience at the Rotary meeting are unfamiliar with this new technology for radiating the flue gas to eliminate its pollutants and produce valuable byproducts like fertilizers and food to feed millions. The food and byproducts that it produces do not contain any radiation, nor does it have any harmful effects on the environment or to human health.

Let us please publicize its advantages to the public. As a scientific, modern project with no harm done to anyone and much to gain for all, it should not create any controversy. Let us seek the help and partnership of the EPA and other agencies to convert the flue gas to environmentally friendly byproducts and food to feed the world.