New clean coal facility in Urbauer set to finish construction

| Staff Reporter

“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Don’t take a fence down until you know why it was put up’?”

Richard Axelbaum—director of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization (CCCU) and professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering at Washington University—asks that question while he sits at his desk, cradling a coffee mug decorated with colorful stick figures. In just a few months, his team’s research into the controversial field of carbon sequestration—“clean coal”—will take shape in the form of the world’s first Staged Pressurized Oxy Combustion (SPOC) system, located in Urbauer Hall.

Workers place the finishing touches on the space for Urbauer Hall's lab-sized pressurized oxy-combustor. In two to three months, CCCU Director Richard Axelbaum and his team will begin work with the device, the first of its kind. Megan Magray | Student Life

Workers place the finishing touches on the space for Urbauer Hall’s lab-sized pressurized oxy-combustor. In two to three months, CCCU Director Richard Axelbaum and his team will begin work with the device, the first of its kind.

Most people familiar with campus issues will recognize clean coal as a divisive subject. Last month, Fossil Free WashU submitted a letter to Chancellor Mark Wrighton encouraging the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. In April of last year, Students Against Peabody staged a 16-day sit-in demanding that the school cut ties with Peabody—specifically, to remove the coal-using energy company’s CEO, Greg Boyce, from the university’s board of trustees.

Axelbaum, however, believes that the years he has spent researching various types of energy have given him the perspective necessary to craft viable solutions to the energy crisis.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in energy—my entire career in energy—and I went through the ’70s, where wind and solar were the solution. And I believed it at that time. But as I get more experience with energy, I start to not believe it as much as I used to believe it,” Axelbaum said.

Axelbaum explained that the SPOC system is designed not only prevent the release of CO2 into the atmosphere—one of the main environmental concerns created by fossil fuels—but also to provide additional services to society, such as supplying water and increasing the amount of oil that can be acquired from oil fields.

“When you’re sequestering CO2, you’re putting it into different places, but one place is what’s called a saline aquifer,” he said. “It’s just an area very deep—say, 2 kilometers or so down—that is saltwater. And then when you put the CO2 down, you can displace that and bring the water back up.”

The SPOC system is currently being built in Urbauer Hall in the School of Engineering & Applied Science. A large window runs across one wall of the three-story facility, making it completely visible from the adjacent hallway. Despite the anti-coal activism on campus, the new project itself has been the subject of little controversy.

Frustration with the term “clean coal” still overshadows other objections to the research, sophomore Chloe Ames, president of Fossil Free WashU, indicated.

“One thing that we do have a huge issue with is the name ‘clean coal,’” Ames said. “Clean coal does not exist; coal is a very dirty substance and does contribute a lot to fossil fuels and therefore increases the greenhouse gas [emissions]. So that’s one thing we would like to see change because that’s just false. Obviously, we also think that those resources [being used for coal research] could be put to other use, such as other alternative energy. But there just is no such thing as clean coal.”

From the time that the CCCU was established in 2009, protesters have taken issue with the term “clean coal,” arguing that the term has more to do with marketing rather than scientific accuracy. In November 2009, for instance, Student Union Senate unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the use of the term in the consortium’s name.

At a discussion event in March of that year, Washington University Law School senior lecturer Maxine Lipeles specified that she took issue with the name rather than the research itself.

“I don’t have a problem with the research, but I do have a problem with taking [the industry’s] spin with it,” Lipeles told Student Life six years ago. “And I don’t think that’s consistent with the ideals of a university and the academic integrity that motivates a university.”

In the same discussion, Washington University political science professor Bill Lowry also took issue with the term.

“This notion of clean coal is an oxymoron,” Lowry said. “Coal is going to inevitably be dirty. I think the term is perpetuated by a consortium of energy companies who try to frame the issue likely to gain public support.”

Axelbaum, however, appreciates the term’s controversial nature.

“I know there’s a lot of questions about the name and I understand the concern, but I have to tell you: my goal is to educate the students,” Axelbaum said. “If that name can bring people to ask me questions or ask other people questions, then it’s really served a very valuable role. That wasn’t the goal of the name—but it’s been one of the side benefits.”

Objections to the research still exist outside the name. Fossil Free WashU President Ames expressed concerns that the research would result in an increased dependency on coal.

“Just for the sake of the environment and public health, it’s not a resource that we should be tapping into further,” Ames said. “And one thing with trying to create these new methods for cleaner coal is it’s increasing the dependency on coal. By doing that, we’re almost—not giving up—but keeping on the coal track, which is something we should be moving away from.”

Ames also voiced concerns about further investment in coal companies, which are often described as notorious violators of human rights due to dangerous working conditions, which can result in black lung disease and explosions in the mines.

“One good example [of human rights violations] that sums it up a lot is when Peabody created this company called Patriot Coal…because they wanted to save money,” Ames said. “So they created this company specifically so it could go bankrupt so they didn’t have to pay the pensions of the coal workers.”

The United Mine Workers of America reached a settlement in October 2013 with Patriot Coal and Peabody Energy, preserving health care benefits for retired workers.

Ames also noted the abnormally high rates of asthma in St. Louis, a known hub for coal companies. According to a Heartland Center study in 2011, children’s asthma rates in St. Louis City are twice the national rate.

“One thing that is really bad is coal ash in the mines,” Ames said. “That causes a lot of respiratory problems and health issues for the workers and for the community.”

When asked about human rights concerns perpetrated by big coal companies, Axelbaum admitted a lack of knowledge but did not seem troubled.

“I don’t know a lot of details on that,” Axelbaum said. “But I do know that when you’re out doing something, you have an impact. And you have negative impacts when you make change. And you need to do everything you can to minimize those type of impacts.”

Axelbaum also addressed the improbability of the large-scale use of wind and solar energy, noting that it could take around thousands of wind turbines to produce the amount of power provided by an average-sized coal-fired power plant—wreaking havoc on the environment in an attempt to help it.

“Ninety percent of our energy is burning things right now,” Axelbaum said. “We don’t realize it, but [less than 10 percent] is wind and solar.”

Axelbaum also emphasized the inconsistent nature of wind and solar power as energy sources.

“The challenge is, are we still going to be able to replace all of this in a reasonable enough time with these two sources of energy?” Axelbaum said. “Even if you could, you have the problem that it’s not when you want it, where you want it.”

Bill Lowry and Maxine Lipeles were not available for comment for this article.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with two corrections. In the photo caption, it was clarified that this project is not part of the CCCU, and a bracketed quote was clarified to express that less than 10 percent of energy comes from wind and solar sources.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.