Carbon power racks brains21 July 2000
There is something tantalising about earth’s greatest fossil fuel resource - coal. It is much more fairly distributed round the world than the other fossil fuels, but it is ‘dirtier’ than they are. Understandably, developing countries rail at the ‘hypocrisy’ of industrial nations that grew fat on coal exploitation when it was not an issue and that frown on poorer countries’ unbridled polluting use of their coal reserves now.
Coal’s broader availability is sometimes more apparent than real, however. Much of the stuff is not economically mineable. Underground gasification may become a satisfactory answer in some cases but it is not a general one yet.
Many unmineable coalbeds offer ready-made methane as another taunt to would-be consumers. Enormous examples of such beds in Alberta, Canada, have lured international interest: the special Albertan attractant is work on a technique for injecting them with CO2 gas. In principle the technique is much the same as CO2 injection for enhancing production from oilfields. In coalbeds the injected gas is adsorbed by the coal and stored in its pores, displacing and releasing hitherto trapped methane. The technique has been employed on certain highly permeable US beds but the Canadian-led team seeks success where permeability is low.
The aim is to fuel appropriately-sited power stations with either mined coal or the methane from unmineable coal, having used the CO2 from combustion of the mined coal to extract the methane. It is said that there are many parts of North American and other regions in which it would thus be possible to generate electricity with virtually zero net emission of two principal greenhouse gases - methane and CO2. The possibility of using one of them to help dispose usefully of the other is delicious to contemplate.
In its way, methane is as tantalising as coal. A serious environmental issue is now so-called ‘methane mitigation’, by which is meant the mitigation of methane’s malign influence on global climate. Minds are being bent to discover and develop ways of reducing methane excursions from coal mines, natural gas and biogas systems, livestock, landfills and other sources. The total quantity of methane is huge but unfortunately the gas seepages, plumes, streams, bubbles, puffs, wisps, clouds, eruptions, jets, vortices, squirts and so forth cannot all be mitigatingly channelled into power station boilers.
Purse your lips at waffle merchants Sometimes there is amusement to be had from the press releases of firms that do not know quite whom they are addressing, although plainly their intention is to attract trade, technical and professional buyers. The writers mingle would-be-academic pomposity with patronising waffle in words that look satirical until closer inspection shows them to be in earnest.
Here is a specimen from a corporation in Connecticut, USA. The headline carries a hint of purposed meaning although the precise purport escapes me. Do try your own powers of divination on the wording and punctuation: BATTERY AND ELECTRIC VEHICLE MARKETS AIDED BY INNOVATION, REGULATIONS. The writer of this press release goes on, perhaps unwittingly, to parody pedantry in a bold-type but curiously understated affirmation. He says that Electrochemical cells, generically known as batteries, are used to save and transport electrical energy.
At the end of the page the issuer of the release is reported to conclude that there is a great deal of interest in this technology which could be of great importance for electric vehicles if they work as expected and which might have extremely positive effect on the future of the electric vehicle. For $1500, the next page states, one can have the complete study upon which the ‘data and analysis’ quoted in the release have been based.
Do you fancy another specimen? I offer a snippet from a professional-looking guidebook titled General purpose enclosures. This work is published by an association of UK firms selling instrumentation, control and automation. The snippet, which opens a chapter devoted to locks and hinges, declares that Enclosures are fitted with locks and hinges for two main reasons - to enable easy access to the interior and to prevent unauthorised access.
Who would have guessed?