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OSU Researchers Look to Find Clean Coal Solution

Ohio State University researchers think they've found a cleaner way to burn coal. The university has received more than one-and-a-half million dollars from the Department of Energy. The funding will support plans to build a one-of-a-kind reactor that could turn coal into an ultra-pure version of hydrogen.

Traditionally when coal is used to make electricity, it's pulverized and then burned in a furnace connected to a boiler. The furnace heat converts boiler water to steam, which is then used to spin turbines that create electricity. OSU's new process is similar but cleaner. The process combines coal and steam in a boiler, breaking the two down into a gas composed of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. That gas would be fed into a tube-shaped reactor that generates electricity. What researchers are so excited about is, unlike traditional coal furnaces, the new reactor holds the carbon dioxide, preventing its release into the environment. OSU Professor of Chemical Engineering L.S. Fan will head the project. He's hesitant to say the device would revolutionize the coal industry. But he's confident the computer-designed plan has potential.

Most important is once we had very solid fundamental results in the lab scale, we are confident it will be successful on a larger scale, Fan says.

Fan says the new unit would cut pollution and boost effeciency. Current coal-burning operations have an efficiency rating of about 36 percent, meaning they only use 36 percent of coal's available energy. Fan predicts his reactor would achieve an efficiency rating as high as 85 percent, depending on the purity of the coal. Fan and his team of researchers will have about $1.6 million to build the new reactor. The money is part of President Bush's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. Department of Energy spokesman Dan Cicero says 22 colleges and universities submitted plans for machines to turn coal into high-potency hydrogen. Cicero says OSU's proposal seemed the most realistic.

We thought it was highly possible that they would get to the next stage, where commercialization would help to simplify the production of hydrogen from coal in the United States, Cicero says.

OSU holds the patent on the new device. Fan estimates the reactor will be operational in three years. If the university can show federal authorities the device works, it can be cleared to enter the commercial market.