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Maohong Fan wants to help solve an energy puzzle that will ensure Wyoming’s coal production remains viable for decades to come. Finding catalysts, or new materials that can be used for processing Wyoming coal, may be the key.
Fan, a School of Energy Resources (SER) associate professor of chemical engineering in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, is using the new Peabody Energy Advanced Coal Technology Laboratory to conduct coal-conversion research. Specifically, his group, including Professor Brian Towler, a UW professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, wants to develop new catalytic coal gasification technologies, which can produce a desired syngas (a gas mixture that mainly contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane) for producing chemicals, including ethylene glycol. Syngas, short for synthesis gas, is created from a process known as coal gasification.
“Ethylene glycol, currently produced from petroleum resources, can be produced from coal in a cost-effective manner,” says Fan, who specializes in advanced coal technologies, low-emission energy production and syntheses and applications of new materials, including catalysts and sorbents.
Ethylene glycol is an organic compound that has a number of uses, including as antifreeze in heating and cooling systems, in hydraulic brake fluids and as a solvent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also is an important raw material for polyester fiber production.
Wyoming is the nation’s leading coal producer, and most of the commodity is shipped out of state and used for power generation, Fan says. Coal-fired power plants, in the state and elsewhere, face increased costs due to strict environmental regulations, a scenario that is challenging to Wyoming’s coal economy.
The university, through investment by the state of Wyoming and industry partners, is pursuing research and development to create new products and diversify the state’s coal market by using advanced coal-conversion technologies. Ideally, creating higher-value use of coal via the production of ethylene glycol in a low-cost and low-emissions manner will reshape Wyoming’s coal economy.
Fan's research group includes post-doctoral students, graduate students and undergraduate students. Each team member works on certain aspects or steps associated with the coal-conversion process, Fan says. David A. Bell, a UW associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and Towler are the primary colleagues who work with Fan on his coal-conversion research.
Peabody Energy contributed $2 million, matched by the state of Wyoming, to build the Energy Innovation Center, with the expectation that a portion of the facility would house research directed at advanced coal technologies, says SER Director Mark Northam.
“The Peabody Advanced Coal Technology Laboratory was named to recognize Peabody Energy’s contribution and support of research at UW,” Northam says. “The conversion of low-value fossil resources into higher-value products is a key component of our strategic plan, and we now have top-notch facilities to do this important research.”
“Peabody Energy is a global leader advancing clean coal solutions and has low-carbon projects and partnerships on three continents,” says Greg Boyce, chairman and chief executive officer for Peabody Energy. "We are proud to partner with the University of Wyoming to advance projects that transform coal into multiple necessary products.”
Arch Coal contributed $750,000, also matched by the state, for the research offices that support the advanced coal technology research. The Arch Coal Research Offices supply equipped office space for visiting professionals and researchers from other universities and industry, and are a vital component to the success of this specialized research.
Fan says the key to coal-conversion technologies is the development of new catalysts to make the processes faster.
“Hopefully, we can develop some new catalysts for syngas-to-ethylene glycol production,” he says. “We need something that is not only cost-effective, but readily available here or made from Wyoming materials.”
Fan explains that China is the only country, currently, that has facilities to commercially produce ethylene glycol from coal. In 2012, China built five such industrial plants for a total annual production capacity of 1 million metric tons of ethylene glycol, Fan says. The United States produces ethylene glycol from petroleum resources, but none currently from coal.
“Right now, coal-conversion technology in the U.S. does not move as fast as other countries in the world,” Fan says. “The SER’s new facility could be a game changer.”
Towler, meanwhile, is focused on coal gasification and the Fischer-Tropsch process, which is a collection of synthesis reactions that convert a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons.
“One of our primary concerns is to improve the gasification process,” Towler says.
Towler and Bell explain that most gasifiers are designed for bituminous or black coal, which has a high heating (energy) value but often contains significant amounts of sulfur and other contaminants that are not desirable in gasification. However, Wyoming coal is sub-bituminous, which has a lower heating value but significantly lower amounts of sulfur and other contaminants.
“Gasifiers are not designed for that type (sub-bituminous) of coal,” Bell says. “We have to come up with better designs.”
In addition to assisting Fan, Bell heads his own project in the new lab. Bell works in concert with the U.S./China Clean Energy Research Center on Coal, which is managed out of West Virginia University. Bell’s project concentrates on improving a process currently being carried out by the Shenhua Group at its coal-to-liquid fuel plant in Yulin, Shaanxi Province, China. The plant gasifies coal to produce diesel, but part of the coal is left unconverted.
The center at West Virginia University wants to use the unconverted coal to make hydrogen and then use the hydrogen in the coal-to-liquids plant, Bell explains. If such a coal-to-liquids fuel plant can be established in the United States, Powder River Basin coal could be used. To prepare that possibility, Bell intends to measure gasification characteristics of Powder River Basin coal to aid in optimizing gasifier design.
“We’re trying to develop better science regarding coal gasification,” Bell says. “The better science, in turn, can lead to better design of coal gasifiers, better operation of coal gasification and better coal gasification economics. Our research is aimed at lowering costs and making it more economically feasible in this country.”
If coal can be converted to various products here, Bell says, it would be more profitable for Wyoming to ship such finished manufactured products -- rather than raw materials -- to other countries. For example, if you convert coal to liquid fuels, you’ve created a smaller package and less volume to ship, Bell says.
“Coal technology development is still very important and necessary. At this point, Wyoming can hopefully use new coal-conversion technology to provide a boon to the economy,” Fan says.
Ying Wang, a UW graduate student from China, works in the Peabody Energy Advanced Coal Technology Laboratory, located in the Energy Innovation Center. (UW Photo)