In recent years, many politicians encouraged and supported electricity generation from “alternative” or “renewable” energy sources, such as wind and solar, and from natural gas. At the same time, they invented a new term for the traditional energy source (coal), namely “dirty coal.”
“Dirty coal”, of course, can mean a variety of things. As far as I can reckon, the politicians mostly mean three things with that term, namely:
1.production of carbon dioxide from burning coal, and
2.production of sulfur dioxide from burning coal, and
3.production of smog from burning coal.
Let’s look at these products and the idea that coal is “dirty” in more detail.
To begin with carbon dioxide (CO2), which some people claim to cause “global warming”, is the main product of burning any fossil fuel. Whether you burn coal, or oil, or natural gas, or wood, or alcohol, it is the same result, i.e. CO2 is produced. Even the quantities produced per heat energy unit are quite similar. So, in terms of CO2 production, there is little difference between the different fossil fuels.
Some politicians, government agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) claim CO2 to be a “pollutant”. This is simply incorrect. In fact, the opposite is true. CO2 is not only not a pollutant, without CO2 (a colorless and tasteless gas present in the atmosphere at a concentration of 0.04 %), there would be no life on earth. The carbon in all plants, all animals and humans is entirely derived from the CO2 in the atmosphere. The second claim, namely that CO2 causes “global warming,” is also unproven and has been shown as false by many scientific reports [1,2].
So why do some politicians still hark the tune of the CO2 being evil? Very simply, they hope to create a new taxation mechanism which would enable them to extract a lot of dollars from you and me, in addition to all other existing taxes. This scheme has already resulted in sky-rocketing electricity prices in some jurisdictions. Of course, many levels of government profit from higher prices for anything, directly or indirectly. In other words, it’s in their interest (of taxation) to maintain and propagate these myths.
Most coal contains some sulfur, in the form of both minerals (e.g. pyrite, FeS2) and organic compounds, typically between 1% and 3% in weight. On incineration, these sulfur compounds are converted to sulfur dioxide (SO2), which slowly gets further oxidized in air to sulfur trioxide (SO3). Both SO2 and SO3 dissolve in water to produce acids with corrosive properties. If not removed from the stack gas, the air in areas where high-sulfur coal is burned for energy production or consumed in the fabrication of steel in large quantities, such as at some locations in China, can become hazardous to breathe.
In North America, where approximately 50 percent of the electricity is generated by burning coal, SO2 is removed from the stack gases by “scrubbing”. This process, essentially passing the flue gas through water, removes the SO2 from the gas produced. While SO2 in air was a problem near some power plants in the US and Canada as well, over the last two decades or so, it has largely been eliminated by the scrubbing technology. Therefore, by using the right technology, sulfur dioxide is not an issue for coal burning plants.
Smog is a somewhat ill-defined term. Its most general definition is “decreased transparency of air due to the presence of particles and gases which absorb light.” Smog is mainly caused by small particles (e.g. coal dust) and a variety of gases (including SO2, SO3 and other compounds, such as nitrogen oxides) which act as nuclei for the condensation of water vapor. When condensed to small droplets of (suspended) water, the air becomes less transparent to sunshine.
The aforementioned scrubbing process also eliminates most of the smog producing materials in flue gases. However, some still remain, even if at a lower concentration. So what can be done about that?
Chemists discovered, many years ago, the principle of catalysis. In simple terms, it means “promoting a chemical process by lowering the transition state energy”. What does it mean practically?
You may remember, a few decades ago, car manufacturers were forced to reduce nitrogen oxide and particle emissions from car exhausts. They rose to the challenge and since then every new car has been equipped with a “catalytic converter”. That does exactly what was needed, namely conversion of incompletely burned materials or noxious byproducts, such as nitrogen oxides (commonly referred to as NOX) in the engine exhaust to harmless carbon dioxide and other non-polluting gases. Particles of soot also get oxidized in these converters to CO2.
If you live near a steel producing plant (as I do), you may have noticed “the greening” of the surrounding area which has taken place over the last decades. This is due to the installation of smog–eliminating systems in those years.
The same technology using the “catalysis” process to clean car exhausts from noxious fumes can be used to remove the constituents of flue gases of power plants to convert particles or NOX to clean CO2 and nitrogen, both natural constituents of our air. Of course, scrubber treatment should also be part of such a system to remove sulfur dioxide.
Essentially, the technology used in catalytic converters found in every car can be applied to electricity-generating power plants which burn so-called dirty coal. Using that technology will provide reliable, cost-effective, and “clean energy” from “dirty coal.”
 Slaying the Sky Dragon; slayingtheskydragon.com
 Convenient Myths; convenientmyths.com
Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser is author of CONVENIENT MYTHS, the green revolution – perceptions, politics, and facts
Dr. Kaiser can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org