University dedicates $12 million to campus clean coal initiative

| Staff Reporter

Chancellor Mark Wrighton announced Tuesday that Washington University will be establishing a Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, bringing University researchers together with industry leaders and government officials to make St. Louis a hub for clean coal research.

The $12 million initiative is part of the University’s $60 million effort to “advance education and research related to energy, environment and sustainability,” according to a press release from the Chancellor’s office.

Wrighton foresees both environmental and economic benefits to the University’s plan.
“Despite these difficult financial times, the University and these lead corporate sponsors realize that investment in such research will benefit the region and the world in the long run,” Wrighton said in the press release. “The knowledge and technology we will be able to create together will over time mean lower costs to customers and global environmental improvement.”

Through the initiative, the University hopes to conduct several studies, including those that explore the use of oxy-coal combustion, a new technology that replaces air with pure oxygen and potentially allows for a more cost-effective capture of carbon dioxide from the exhaust stream.

Richard Axelbaum, professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering at the University, will head the initiative. Though coal does release carbon dioxide, the University’s use of coal technology, Axelbaum said, addresses global climate change without adding to greenhouse gas emissions, which has been blamed for global warming.

“There are various techniques that can be implemented to actually capture carbon dioxide and store it underground,” Axelbaum said. “There are large cavernous regions under the earth that can store large quantities of carbon dioxide.”

Some students, however, see problems with the project. Senior Lee Cordova, former president of Green Action, feels that the world’s power plants need to be cleaned up to allow for a positive environmental impact.

“I don’t know how much people realize how much coal is used around the world and in Missouri, that something needs to be done to research how to clean those up,” he said.
Cordova added that it will not necessarily be the University’s responsibility to maintain a clean coal standard but rather that the focus on energy and environmental consequence should be on Ameren, the Missouri and Illinois utility company.

“Basically the University has to buy what Ameren provides,” he noted. “I think it’s more of a question of [whether] Ameren is going to adopt this.”

Despite the controversy about the benefits and costs of clean coal technology, Matt Malten, the vice chancellor for sustainability, said that the initiative fulfills a short-term need and indicates a long-term commitment to clean energy.

“We believe that we are going to have to rely on a diversity of fuel sources,” Malten said. “[The initiative] would lower the carbon footprint for the campus. It says we’re dedicated to it and also dedicated to really addressing some tough global issues.”

Malten said that the initiative, which is now focused on research, could lead to the University’s use of clean coal as its main power source.

“One of the key components of it is we’re spending a great amount of time seeing if it’s feasible to put this facility on campus,” he said. “For practical application, we see it as a zero carbon energy source if we can accomplish it.”

In total, 24 research universities worldwide have signed on to the initiative.

Internationally, other countries have begun to rapidly develop coal technologies, including China, which is involved in the initiative.

“China is growing very rapidly, and they are building new coal power plants at the rate of one per week,” Axelbaum said. “China has expertise in this area as well, so by collaborating, we benefit from this interaction as well.”

Pointing to the abundance of coal—more than 150 years of reserves—in the United States, Axelbaum added that research should be dedicated to exploiting this natural resource effectively.

“The supplies of coal are really very large, so it’s not an extreme limitation like there would be on gas or oil,” Axelbaum said. “I’m all for as much alternative energy use as we can. It’s just that there are limits to what we can accomplish.”

But he added that the consortium will encourage efforts to produce clean energy through educational institutions.

“What happens is that we tend to hope there’s a very simple solution to the problem, and it is very complicated,” Axelbaum said. The consortium will make us a little more educated about what the challenges are that we face and chart the appropriate course to address the problem.”

With additional reporting by Ben Sales and Perry Stein