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A new partnership for low-rank coal

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World Coal,

The answer was just under their noses. Under their feet, actually. After finding out that low rank coal limitations were a good opportunity for both, Italian coal research company, Sotacarbo, and Ormosszen, a Hungarian coal miner, set up the Carbon[I/O] project to research the utilisation of Sardinian sub-bituminous coal and Hungarian brown coal.

To have large amounts of a natural resource classified as "low-rank fuel", without the right technology to exploit it in a convenient way, is a familiar situation that the Sulcis and Miskolc coal basins share with many areas in the world. It does not take a genius to realise the potential interest for research on low-quality coals goes far beyond the boundaries of Italy or Hungary.

Last December Sotacarbo and Ormosszen announced they had signed a cooperation agreement to develop new alternative systems to exploit low rank coal in an environmentally friendly way. Commenting on the agreement, Alberto Pettinau, Sotacarbo project manager, said: “Carbon[I/O]” agreement is the most logical step after the experimental and theoretical analyses carried out jointly in the first half of 2013.” “We began with a preliminary investigation of the potential multipurpose transformations of low-rank coals for a sustainable production of electrical energy, clean gaseous and liquid fuels and heat. Many tests were carried out in the Sotacarbo fixed-bed and up-draft pilot gasifier. The experimental tests showed that the Sotacarbo gasification process is very suitable for the use of both Hungarian and Sardinian coal, while the advanced desulphurisation processes allows a very efficient synthesis gas desulphurisation, in spite of the very high sulfur content (up to 6 – 7% by weight), which characterises both coals and limits their potential use,” Pettinau continued.

Founded in 1987, Sotacarbo has a long and well-documented history of trying to widen coal’s niche in the energy policy of the Italian government, often marked by the flip-flopping of opinion towards fossil fuels. Sotacarbo vice president, Giuseppe Girardi, emphasised that “our duty was – and still is – to develop and to improve the coal plants efficiency, as well as their competitiveness, in order to ensure coal is part in a well balanced combination of energy sources in the world. In fact a good mix is the most sensible choice to reduce risks and fluctuations otherwise inevitable in any one-and-only-one-energy-source approach. In recent times, our vision focused also on developing the CCS technologies, which was appreciated by the Italian government, and now we can say we have laid the foundations to guarantee a promising future for coal research in this country.” Sotacarbo and its state-of-the-art research centre, located in the former Serbariu coal mine, have just been formally recognised by the Italian government as the “Technological Pole for Clean Energy” in Italy. A new role and a wider mission that goes beyond coal. But coal research still remains the cornerstone.

In today’s changing energy market, choosing to explore the low rank coal route is an intuition likely to pay off. As pointed out by Joseph Van Den Berg, Owen Ward and Jason Palmenberg in their recent article, King Coal, Dethroned?, the coal industry “could be on the brink of a productivity revival”. And lower-quality coal can claim a significant role in it.

To set up a new brown coal industry is the main ambition of the Carbon[I/O] project, as revealed by Ormosszen chief scientific officer Köntös Zoltán: “We are looking forward to establishing the brown coal’s new commercial market via different transformation. Products like syngas can be used to extend the contribution to the energy supply sector to promote technologies designed to proof different usage pathways. Carbon[I/O] will provide the economic and technological ground for the industrial utilisation of brown coal.”

Zoltán said the project’s road map is divided in two phases. “The first one aims to promote the introduction, on a Europe-wide basis, of some state-of-the-art technology for the eco-friendly transformation of brown coal into electricity, heat and chemical compounds. The second phase will provide the development and the implementation of technologies, accordingly to the stakeholders current interests and the energy market needs. There is a real global potential to increase further the adoption of the brown coal transformation processes.”

“We want to examine the potential multipurpose transformation of low rank coals, which are assuming more and more interest worldwide, due to their low cost and extensive availability. Sharing the knowledge and experience gained by Sotacarbo and Ormosszén will allow for the development of new technologies and configurations for the sustainable use of low rank coals for the production of electricity, liquid fuels and heat with near zero pollutant emissions. Furthermore, there will be the possibility to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emission,” Pettinau added.

Ormosszen expresses a great deal of confidence in low rank coals commercial future. The Hungarian company believes now is the right time to invest on low-rank coal and explains why their project is up to the task: “The whole concept is based on the deep synergy between us and Sotacarbo. It has a very solid base, provided by four key pillars: the Department of Combustion Technology and Thermal Energy in the University of Miskolc, led by Prof. Palotàs Arpad, whose involvement guarantees the best background to investigate and elaborate theories; brown coal’s long-term mining rights; deep knowledge of the European-level innovation ecosystem; and a truly effective and cooperative management, already tested.”

Taking advantage of the Sulcis and Hungarian coal weaknesses to carve out a leading role on a global scale in the low-rank coal research field looks quite like a safe bet for Sotacarbo and Ormosszen. A goal waiting to be scored.

Written by Gianni Serra.

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