Good Coal

Jan 07 2013 Published by under European and German energy law

Coal essentially is ancient biomass, and the CO2 cost comes from burning plants that have absorbed CO2 millions of years ago. Now clever German scientists have found a way to make coal from contemporary biomass. They compress leaves or grass in a matter of hours to a fuel equivalent to lignite, except that it is CO2 neutral.

Thanks to this tweet by Energiewende Germany for the link.

That of course will come in handy when using existing fossil fuel plants as backup power sources in the rare time slots where not enough renewable energy is available. If one must burn coal at all, it should be this kind.

The website of the developer of this technology, a company called “Suncoal”, is here.

I have read a couple of pages of that website. They claim that their technology only uses about 7% of the energy contained in the final biocoal. They also explain that the basic technology was already known at the beginning of the 20th Century and they have only improved it with modern methods.

Their page on environmental advantages of their patented technology lists these points:

For one, much of existing biomass waste is not used, but could be with their technology. They cite a 2010 study that gives a potential of 22,840 TWh by 2020, which is in the general ballpark range of the World’s electricity consumption.

Using this kind of biomass is also a good idea since it does not compete with food production.

And they point out that their product fits in with existing fossil fuel power plants, so it can help with the transition to a 100 percent renewable electricity sector.

7 responses so far

  • jmdesp says:

    There’s a long list of reasons why it doesn’t really have the potential to be a game changer. It can only be useful on the side, if almost 95% of the problem has already been taken care of, which is not the current configuration of Germany with coal/lignite.
    And those 95% can not be reached only with wind and solar (except if you have very large storage capacity, or except if you have very large overcapacity and just throw a lot of the energy. The overcapacity “solution” is only valid for wind however)

    It will in competition to use the same biomass sources as several other potential biomass exploitation technologies, for biogaz, pellet, etc. There’s actually several other biocoal technologies, which are at a more industrial stage, one by http://www.green-charcoal.com/ and the other by Thermya (which has been bought by Areva) and have similar energy consumption as those 7%

    There’s only that much of biomass that’s available without starting to have to develop it industrially. Which means that quickly you find yourself importing it from far away, as is currently the case with pellets (shown in this report http://www.enplus-pellets.eu/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Industrial-pellets-report_PellCert_2012_secured.pdf Denmark claims to be green by burning 90% of import pellet, Germany is mostly self sufficient, but still starting to import from the US).
    Taking away too much biomass without bringing something to compensate will end up depleting the soils.

    Also what I don’t much like with this kind of solutions if that there will still be some fine particle pollution with this technologies.
    And depending on the origin of the biomass, there can be pollutants in it that will released in the air (tree absorb and concentrate all the pollution of the ground).

  • Karl-Friedrich Lenz says:

    Thanks for your continuing comments, and have a great new year.

    I am not sure why this should be unable to deliver more than 5% of demand. The study the website mentioned said that potential is 22,840 TWh.

    They also say that their technology uses biomass not used now.

    I don’t mind if some or all of this is imported. I am only concerned with the time-shifting of CO2 by conventional fossil fuel.

    Soot emission is actually positive as far as global warming is concerned, since it has a negative forcing effect.

    Anyhow, I think we could agree that firing this fuel is always preferable to burning biomass that is millions of years old.

  • jmdesp says:

    Hi, thanks and I wish you a good new year also.

    Honestly the number you are quoting seems incredibly optimist. I’m unable to find any actual source corroborating it, and several that strongly contradict it.

    I actually can find this 2010 Vattenfall study, using McKinsey sources, making 2020 estimates http://www.vattenfall.co.uk/en/file/101124_Biomass_ENG.pdf_16470113.pdf_16635067.pdf whose numbers even if they are only for Europe are really different.
    It says the amount of biomass from waste, by-products and residues could be increased to only 370 TWh by 2020, and also that realizing the full potential of biomass would bring it to 1.5 to 2.5% of EU electricity. Vattenfal says that meeting the 2020 goal for EU already requires importing a lot of biomass.
    An important point is that it reports that residues are actually already used in power generation, however they are mixed with a majority of normal coal. I believe the point of this biocal is more in the fact of being able to burn almost 100% only of biocoal. The applicable biomass they list feels quite similar to the residues listed elsewhere.
    Anyway there will not be a lot more of those residues than the amount already quoted by Vattenfal.

    This other study about Germany http://www.central2013.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/Downloads/outputlib/4biomass_Germany_trade_study_uploaded.pdf
    estimates the German residue potential at 550 PJ, which at 277MWh / PJ is only 150 GWh. The total of everything is only about 500 GWh (for 1800PJ).

    Yes burning biocoal is much better than burning conventional coal, but I’m worried about the attitude of believing it will be a bailout from the constraint of having to find a substitute for most of the fossil plant.

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  • […] (the first time I heard someone doing that), or on synthetic coal made from modern biomass, as Suncoal wants to do. There’s nothing wrong with running a gas plant if you fire hydrogen that has been produced […]

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