The research and development (R&D) of clean coal technologies in South Africa is absolutely necessary, says Fossil Fuel Foundation director and recently retired Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation South African Research Chairs Initiative Clean Coal Technology chair Professor Rosemary Falcon.
Clean coal technologies are a collection of technologies being developed to reduce the environmental impact of coal during production and in energy generation.
Apart from two of State-owned power utility Eskom’s latest power stations, there is currently no clear and/or sufficient focus on clean coal technologies locally, she tells Mining Weekly, noting that stakeholders in this arena have been considered “academic” by some large corporates, “downtrodden by those punting other energy alternatives” and ignored by many smaller coal miners and users.
“Companies that have the ability to provide clean coal technologies present their wares at energy conferences, which are often not attended by those who should, or indeed, need to be better informed in this country – including government,” she declares.
A greater push is needed in educating the energy community about the cleaner possibilities of producing and using coal. Falcon comments that South Africa’s two most significant assets in evidence at most large coal mines are its high level of competence in coal mine safety and coal beneficiation.
“However, after that, funding stops at the mine gate and does not go any further in support of coal and its cleaner use in this country.”
Moreover, top clean coal technology institutions – including academic, research and government institutions – globally, such as those in Europe, the UK and the US, have shown little or no interest in developing R&D in Southern Africa, as there is no capacity, encouragement or funding to do so coming from South Africa, Falcon points out.
Institutions that do fund activities here limit their activities to carbon capture and storage through State-owned entity the South African National Energy Development Institute, but South Africa has little opportunity to ultimately store the quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) currently being produced, she notes.
“The projects that do arise in various universities provide little in the way of greater expansion or development.”
There has not been much research on clean coal technologies in academic bodies in South Africa because the country has “always been a hard-rock country – and focused on, for example, gold and platinum”. Research in coal – the Cinderella commodity – has never been considered worth embarking upon in any significant manner, she explains.
“Limited research has been conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and even that has been threatened with closure on an annual basis.”
Moreover, coal geology, beneficiation and coal as a material in need of specific scientific and engineering consideration as a key commodity from which valuable carbon products are made, was never taught in any discipline – and still is not – at undergraduate level. The Clean Coal Technology Research group in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and a similar group at North West University, are currently the only centres of postgraduate clean coal technologies research.
Notably, South Africa has no coal policy or strategy and the Minerals Council South Africa has not been able to outline the greater overall clean coal technologies requirements of the country in its National Coal Strategy for South Africa, Falcon points out.
To promote the R&D of clean coal technologies, Falcon is an adviser to various corporate and academic institutions at Wits. The Clean Coal Technology Research group is working on pilot scale activities in various locations and on various mines to rehabilitate mine land and use plants in cofiring with coal.
Key researchers include senior research fellow Dr Samson Bada and lecturer and researcher Zama Mthabela, both from Wits, as well as a large group of postgraduate students also from Wits.
The group’s project involves the rehabilitation of disturbed mine land through the cultivation and continued growth of specific plant species such as bamboo. The aim is to use these plant materials, in this case bamboo species, for cofiring in coal-fired boilers to reduce CO2 during power generation.
Further, specific bamboo species are notable for being tolerant to acid mine drainage and their roots absorb heavy metals from contaminated soils, which, in turn, can be extracted and sold.
The group is working with R&D organisation Mintek, the CSIR, and the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences. It is also working with the National Bamboo Association of South Africa, several mines and various related specialists and consultants in the field both locally and internationally.
To date, excellent results have been achieved, Falcon highlights. This includes the successful growth of certain species of bamboo and trees on contaminated land and the successful combustion of low-temperature heat-treated (torrefied) bamboo and other tree species with coal when combusted in lab and pilot scale facilities.
Future of Coal
Coal could have a bright future in South Africa, as the country has more than 200 years of coal left in the ground, and there are many methods whereby coal can be mined, beneficiated and used cleanly, Falcon enthuses.
Coal can also be used in collaboration with renewable energy, which would ensure the reduction of CO2 and greenhouse-gas emissions, she notes.
Further, coal can be cofired with biomass and a range of waste materials, and solar power can support the thermal aspects for steam raising in coal-fired power stations.
“There is so much that can be done, but it takes the recognition of the potential, clear-headed project management, support from leaders in industry and government and informed decisions by all to accomplish it,” she concludes.