Tribune-Democrat - Guest Editorial - January 13, 2009

Coal plays a vital role in our energy economy today, and will continue to be important for decades. 

America’s mines produce about a billion tons every year. That’s equivalent to a block a half-mile on a side and a half-mile high.

Ninety percent is used for electricity generation. The coke industry and export sales account for most of the remainder. 


A ton of coal provides about the same amount of heat as 140 gallons of fuel oil, or 20,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Directly or indirectly, our energy use is equivalent to every American consuming four tons of coal a year. 

Despite coal’s importance to economic well-being, and though we will be relying on coal for years to come, we can’t ignore the serious problems coal has brought with it. 

The end of December witnessed an enormous ash spill in  Tennessee . Earlier that month, the Bush administration relaxed rules on dumping of mining wastes into streams. 

Growing up in anthracite country (West Pittston,  Luzerne  County ), I saw houses wrecked by mine subsidence, huge culm banks, and landscapes devastated by abandoned surface mining. 

As we monitor the global climate, we must face up to coal producing more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than other fuels; in fact, about twice as much as natural gas. 

The picture is not good.

Does the future have to mirror the past? Individuals and organizations that advocate ending the use of coal – usually the sooner the better – seem to think so. I don’t. 

Coal can have a bright and positive future, contributing to our economic vitality and energy security. English author George Orwell reminds us that, “He who commands the future conquers the past.” 

We can do that for coal, with continued development of technologies for ever-cleaner use, including trapping and sequestering potential pollutants.

What future coal might have depends on the time frame over which we look. For several decades yet, coal will be important in base-load electricity generation. 

By mid-century, coal can contribute significantly to clean liquid transportation fuels. 

By the end of this century, I expect most energy requirements to be met by electricity, with a significant amount of that from solar energy. Then, the importance of coal will be not for energy, but rather as a vital raw material for premium substances such as carbon composites. 

In all of these areas, active research and development programs seek to put coal to work while reducing its possible negative effects.

At Penn State’s EMS Energy Institute, much effort has been devoted to improved, cleaner coal combustion, including ways of reducing emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides and mercury. 

Related studies focus on capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, including methods using serpentine, an abundant  mineral. Unique “molecular baskets” offer another way of dealing with carbon dioxide. 

We have looked at trapping carbon dioxide in water in the state’s oil reservoirs.  Penn  State technology for producing clean jet and diesel fuels from coal is nearing commercialization. These fuels have very low amounts of sulfur and soot-producing components. 

A new strategic alliance with Chevron will foster even more progress in coal-to-liquids technology. A consortium of universities, companies and the Department of Energy is developing applications for making carbon materials from coal. Much excellent work has been done in these areas, and more will be accomplished. 

But, there are no magic bullets to solve potential problems – just a steady commitment for more understanding of coal and its uses, for educating the next generation of scientists and engineers, and for persisting even with only limited successes or occasional failures. 

All of us, not just scientists and engineers, rely on coal in one way or another. All of us have a stake in assuring a clean future for coal. 

This does not mean only what goes on in the laboratory or plant, but scrutinizing and holding accountable companies and appointed officials, and making informed choices in the voting booth. 

Coal is important to us; we all need to work together to make the clean future happen. 

--By Harold Schobert, Ph.D., is a professor of fuel science at  Penn  State. He formerly served as chairman of PSU’s Fuel Science Program and as director of its EMS Energy Institute. He has led the university’s program on development of coal-based jet fuel for almost 20 years. He is a chemist by trade and is the author of nine books. This article reflects his views and should not be construed as an official position of Penn  State . Pennsylvania

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