Washington University research to advance clean coal technology

Washington University in St. Louis Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announced during a news conference today the establishment of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization.

The university has dedicated more than $60 million in financial resources during the past year to advance education and research related to energy, environment and sustainability. The new consortium will receive additional support in the form of research partnership commitments of $5 million each from Arch Coal and Peabody Energy and $2 million from Ameren, to be paid over five years.

The consortium’s goal is to bring university researchers, industries, foundations and government organizations together to research clean coal technology, making St. Louis the nation’s center for clean coal research.

“Despite these difficult financial times, the university and these lead corporate sponsors realize that investment in such research will benefit the region and the world in the long run,” Wrighton said. “The knowledge and technology we will be able to create together will over time mean lower costs to customers and global environmental improvement.”

The consortium will foster work to explore co-combustion of coal with biomass or combustion of coal in pure oxygen, both of which can lead to reductions in carbon emissions. Other studies of approaches to carbon capture and storage will also be a part of the consortium’s work.

Biomass is a renewable source of energy and the research of the consortium will help to address Missouri’s mandate that renewables comprise a fraction of the source of electricity generated in our state.

The consortium will operate under the umbrella of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES), which the university established in June 2007.

The financial commitment to establish I-CARES includes creating six endowed professorships, funding $3 million for seed research, and constructing a new 150,875-square-foot building to house the university’s Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering and I-CARES programs.

The new building — called Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Hall — will be completed in 2010. So far, the university’s total commitment to new facilities, new professorships and programmatic support for I-CARES exceeds $60 million.

“In this consortium dedicated to clean coal utilization, we are forming an international partnership between universities, industries, foundations and government organizations to foster improved efficiency, lower emissions and develop ways to address climate change,” Wrighton said.

“From a university perspective, this is an exciting way to take coal — one of the nation’s most abundant energy resources — and put it to work for the public good. The university will also work to build public understanding of the energy options for the future. The Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization will place St. Louis as the center for clean coal research.”

The university will also announce the establishment of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization at a news conference Dec. 8, 2008, in Hong Kong at the Second International Symposium on Energy & Environment, organized by Washington University’s McDonnell International Scholars Academy.

Twenty-four premier research universities from around the world are partnered with Washington University through the McDonnell Academy and are working together to address issues related to energy, environment and sustainability, and the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization will encourage collaborative research involving these university partners, including partners in China and India with major energy needs being met by coal.

“Peabody is the global leader in clean coal solutions, advancing signature projects around the world to commercialize near-zero emission technologies, including GreenGen in China, the COAL21 Fund in Australia and Vision 21 and FutureGen in the United States,” said Peabody Energy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gregory H. Boyce. “Greater use of clean coal is the ultimate solution for re-energizing the world economy, creating tens of thousands of green jobs and building energy security. We applaud Washington University for its leadership in establishing this global consortium, which will drive energy security, economic growth and environmental solutions that contribute to quality of life around the world.”

“Arch Coal is pleased to partner with Washington University in St. Louis and some of our region’s leading energy companies on this important new initiative,” said Arch’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steven F. Leer. “Global coal consumption has increased 35 percent in the past six years, and China, India and the rest of emerging Asia are building new coal-based power stations at a rapid pace. Arch is committed to supporting the development of new technologies that will allow this essential fuel to be used in cleaner and more climate friendly ways. We are confident that the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization can and will play a vital role in helping the world chart a successful course to a cleaner and more secure energy future.”

“With 65 percent of Missouri’s electricity generated by coal and the increasing likelihood of greenhouse gas reduction requirements, we must continue to invest in technologies that will allow us to meet our customers’ energy needs at a reasonable price — this is especially important given today’s challenging economic conditions,” said Ameren’s Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Rainwater. “To meet that goal, coal must be a part of our fuel mix. The work of the consortium is critical to the continued use of coal in a cost-effective and environmentally safe manner. In addition, this initiative will help utility companies respond to the mandates both in Illinois and Missouri to generate double-digit percentages of our power from renewable sources. For all these reasons, we are pleased to support the consortium in this effort.”

The consortium partners will help establish the key priorities and laboratory facilities for clean coal research on Washington University’s campus. These may include pilot-scale facilities where scientists can perform fundamental research and develop new technology related to more efficient, cleaner combustion of coal and approaches to carbon capture and storage.

Some of the anticipated studies include the use of oxy-coal combustion with carbon capture and storage combined with the use of biomass to generate steam and electricity. Oxy-coal combustion is a new technology that replaces air with pure oxygen, enabling more cost-effective capture of carbon dioxide from the exhaust stream.

“The consortium has a tremendous educational value for our students and the public at large to demonstrate the potential of clean coal combustion as an enabler of new green technologies,” said Richard L. Axelbaum, Ph.D., WUSTL professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering and director of the consortium. “Another key feature of the proposed research facility will be its unique scale, being larger than a typical university research lab but smaller than an industrial one, so it will bridge the gap between the two and allow the university to offer novel capabilities.”

Axelbaum noted that “utilization” in the consortium title is important to the organization’s efforts.

“Clean coal utilization could be for power generation but it could also be to produce petrochemical products, synthetic natural gas or liquid fuels to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and natural gas,” he said. “Another aspect of the consortium would be to research the use of clean coal power plants as enablers of green technologies. For example, the burning of biomass, such as wood or switch grass with coal, and the capture and storage of the carbon dioxide in the exhaust can actually reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And the use of carbon dioxide in the exhaust stream to grow algae can lead to a source of liquid fuels while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The consortium draws upon the strengths of the university’s Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering, I-CARES and the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership (MAGEEP), as well as the St. Louis regional coal companies, Arch and Peabody Energy, and the utility company Ameren. It is anticipated that several additional corporations will join the consortium.

A key goal of I-CARES is to foster institutional, regional and international research on the development and production of biofuels from plant and microbial systems, solar energy, and the exploration of sustainable alternative energy and environmental systems and practices. Research in the consortium will focus on the region’s important coal resources and efforts to mitigate carbon dioxide accumulation, improve combustion processes, and reduce emissions.

I-CARES operates under the direction of Himadri Pakrasi, Ph.D., the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences and professor of energy in the School of Engineering & Applied Science. Earlier this year, I-CARES funded 12 pilot projects in the areas of bioenergy, solar energy, and sustainability.

Organized in 2007, MAGEEP is a consortium of 25 international universities and corporate partners of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy, including Washington University, working together in energy, environmental and sustainability research, education and sustainable campus operations.

MAGEEP operates under the direction of Pratim Biswas, Ph.D., the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science and chair of the energy, environmental and chemical engineering department.

MAGEEP research focuses on energy, aerosols and air quality, and aquatic processes and water quality issues. There are 14 projects involving Washington University faculty and MAGEEP collaborators.

Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU) is the world’s largest private-sector coal company and a global leader in clean coal solutions. Its coal products fuel approximately 10 percent of all U.S. electricity generation and 2 percent of worldwide electricity.

St. Louis-based Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI) is the nation’s second largest coal producer and supplies cleaner-burning, low-sulfur coal to 148 U.S. power plants in 33 states and customers in more than a dozen countries worldwide. Through its national network of mines, Arch Coal provides 6 percent of the electricity generated in the United States.

With assets of approximately $21 billion, Ameren (NYSE: AEE) serves approximately 2.4 million electric customers and almost one million natural gas customers in a 64,000 square mile area of Missouri and Illinois. Ameren owns a diverse mix of electric generating plants strategically located in its Midwest market with a generating capacity of more than 16,400 megawatts.

Washington University is counted among the world’s leaders in teaching and research and it draws students and faculty to St. Louis from all 50 states and more than 125 nations. Some 13,500 undergraduate, graduate and professional students enroll each year. The approximately 3,100 faculty teach in seven schools; 22 Nobel laureates have been associated with Washington University, with nine doing the major portion of their pioneering research here.

The university offers more than 90 programs and almost 1,500 courses leading to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in a broad spectrum of traditional and interdisciplinary fields, with additional opportunities for minor concentrations and individualized programs. It has an operating budget of $1.9 billion and last year received $538 million in total research support, of which $444 million came from the federal government.