What is ACERC, and what do we do?
What kind of advanced coal and energy research areas does ACERC support?
What are the energy education opportunities at SIU?
What is advanced coal?
How is ACERC funded?
Is "clean coal" a myth?
Is a transition to 100% renewable energy possible?
ACERC is the Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center. We received the Energy Boost grant in April 2015. With these funds, we are expanding advanced coal and energy research on the SIU Carbondale campus though efforts including:
- Research Grants
How do we get to clean, efficient, affordable energy for all? We do research and innovate. There are many inter-related, complicated questions, issues and problems that humanity needs to solve. Research areas at SIU include:
- Carbon Dioxide Utilization
- Energy Efficiency
- Energy Storage
- Smart Grid
Undergraduate programs include electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, mining engineering, electrical engineering technology, physics, chemistry, plant biology, geology, geography and architectural studies. Numerous graduate programs exist, including the Professional Science Masters in Advanced Energy and Fuels Management. Browse the ACERC "Learn about Energy" pages for more info.
Historically, the Coal Research Center provided knowledge to increase safety and health of miners, improve understanding of coal towards efficiency gains, and optimization of coal processing. When we talk about 'advanced coal,' we mean coal utilization that produces near-zero emissions and and is more efficient. It could also mean low-carbon non-energy uses of coal, such as an alternative feedstock for chemicals and fuels. In terms of energy, ACERC is working towards the goal of increasing energy access while decreasing emissions. This is attained through research and providing education in pursuit of cleaner and more efficient energy mix, activities including:
- Prioritizing the safety and health of coal miners and others impacted by mining activities
- Minimization of environmental impact while optimizing process efficiency: Uses process other than burning (gasification, chemical looping) or integrates advanced combustion technologies to enable carbon dioxide separation and pollutant capture; Carbon capture, utilization and/or storage
- Using coal where applicable as part of a diversified/distributed/regional energy mix to increase grid flexibility, as well as providing other uses for coal
- Working with partners worldwide to ensure the dissemination of advanced coal knowledge and technology.
In the past, ACERC has been funded primarily through state grants from the taxpayers of Illinois. Currently we are 100% backed by private funding from the Clean Coal Review Board for Energy Boost, to promote advanced coal and energy research and education on the SIU Carbondale campus. We strongly feel a responsibility to serve in the best interests of all the people of Illinois, be they coal supporters, detractors, or simply users of energy.
The way we look at it at ACERC, clean coal is a research question. Investigating the potential of using coal cleanly is a research question that is worthwhile to be pursued because the energy requirements of the planet are growing, and coal is geographically widespread and could provide a big benefit to many people if it could be used cleanly for energy. While leaving coal in the ground is preferable, from a climate perspective, to burning it away as we have done in the past, there may be other low-carbon ways to use coal that could benefit humanity. We do agree that clean coal is a terrible term though, which is why we discuss advanced coal, which means miner safety, minimal environmental impact with maximum efficiency, localized and smart use.
Advanced coal technology is already at work, and studies have shown that usage of the technology could lead to the deep decarbonization levels the planet requires. Unfortunately, thus far, it's economically unpalatable in most cases, and while other challenges with the technology remain, economics is a big one.
Options include capturing the CO2 from the smokestack and either sequestering it (carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS), storing it underground, or utilizing it (carbon capture, utilization and sequestration), converting it into useful fuels and chemicals, or plastics where the CO2 is sequestered. The lowest hanging fruit for CCS is enhanced oil recovery (EOR), and oil companies have been using carbon dioxide this way for decades, although primarily using carbon dioxide pumped out of underground reservoirs. But EOR is not interesting for oil companies when oil prices remain low, and further the actual carbon dioxide mitigation is nearly negligible due to the way the process works. Also, with low natural gas prices and with renewables available, it's easier for a power plant to swith to natural gas than to implement carbon capture and sequestration. CCUS is an area of research for carbon dioxide mitigation, and is being used successfully in some industries such as cement manufacturing to lower carbon dioxide emissions and improve efficiency of the process. This type of reseach is being pursued not only for coal plants but also for the many other sources of manmade carbon dioxide, a waste in these processes, that could be utilized. Given the increasingly strong climate requirements for coal plants, it's unclear at this time whether the technology can get there before it's too late for the industry to survive in its current state. But clearly solving these problems, including making them affordable, can help other industries as well. While there is an abundance of research literature and commentary on this topic, the Washington Examiner recently penned a good article about advanced coal technology; Obama is not waging a war on coal, but rather a "stealth war to make coal clean."
It's become clear to most that utilization of coal for energy is not viable without these technologies if climate goals are to be met. There are still major obstacles to overcome before advanced coal technology will be widely utilized. But if coal could contribute to a clean energy mix, and improve conditions for over a billion humans on the planet who don't currently have access to electricity, is it not a question worth pursuing?
If you are up to date on reading the energy headlines (you would be if you followed @SIUEnergy), then you know that some groups say that we can phase out fossil fuels within a decade, and that deep decarbonization is possible with current technologies. Assuming these scenarios are possible, they would require: 1) global cooperation on unprecedented scales, from individuals to corporations to governements, and 2) an investment of around $1 trillion per year, and 3) and for the fossil fuel companies to contribute their current stock to the transition efforts while accepting a future with minimal fossil fuel use. With the global cooperation arising over the past year with the Paris Agreement, #1 is looking like it's not impossible, with many countries and companies signing on to specific efforts. And for #2 investment is growing with new venture funds through e.g. Bill Gates as well as financing mechanisms such as green bonds. It's getting there. But there's still #3, and this will be a big shift, although Saudia Arabia is ready for it. At any rate, the efforst needed are an extreme challenge, and the only way it will happen is if EVERYONE WORKS TOGETHER on educating the upcoming generation on the best positive actions to supply humanity with energy, as well as completing the research on big important questions that could benefit humanity and pursuing the innovation to make the technology challenges possible. Reality requires more than desire and emotion, but also cooperation on solving problems and getting to work putting solutions in place.