Friday, December 10, 2010

Hatfield "Clean Coal" Power Plant Goes into Administration.

The "Powerfuel" company that owns Hatfield Colliery in Yorkshire has entered administration due to lack of investment. The intention was to improve the mine and develop a "clean coal" power plant based on the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) principle, with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. In IGCC, the coal is not burned directly as it is in normal coal-fired power plants, but is converted into synthesis gas. Impurities are removed from the gas before it is burned, which results in lower emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulates and mercury.

IGCC is more energy-efficient than simply burning pulverized coal, and the efficiency is further improved since heat from the primary combustion and generation is then passed to a steam-cycle, similar to a combined cycle gas-turbine. In the Hatfield situation, the final CO2 was intended to be removed by a CCS unit and pumped into "old" gas-wells under the North Sea.

This was an entirely innovative project, and Powerfuel is the only company with a license to put the technology to the test in the UK. The technology is not cheap and some £164 million worth of funding was secured from the European Union last year, to build the CCS plant. Even so, the rest of the £800 million needed to build the power station could not be secured, although the administrators, KPMG say they are hopeful to find a buyer, even in the present economic climate.

The project was to be at the forefront of the European Union's drive to provide low-carbon electricity, and this outcome is not optimistic that private industry can be relied upon to provide funding to meet governmental carbon emissions targets. There are still considerable reserves of coal in the world, although it was recently predicted that only about half the amount previously thought can be recovered economically. There is the further issue of the quality of coal, since the majority of the world reserve is of lower thermal quality than the top-grade anthracitic coal, and will yield less energy per tonne either burned directly or in the form of syngas in ICGC plants.

It is likely that more conventional (cheaper and proven technology) coal-fired plants will be built to keep the lights on around the world. While speculation still reigns in some quarters over the reality of a connection between carbon emissions and climate change, there is no doubt that running short of energy would be the most immediately catastrophic event for civilization.

Related Reading.
"Hatfield Colliery owner Powerfuel enters administration.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Shortage of Rare earth Metals made worse by Smuggling.

Rare earth (RE) metals find application in devices inlcuding wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, LCDs, fuel cells, nuclear reactors and lasers. China controls some 97% of the world supply of REs, and in July announced a 72% reduction in exports of REs for the second half of 2010, compared with the previous year. It is predicted that in 2012, Chinese domestic consumption of REs will match domestic production, and this year will see a peak in availability and a demand-supply gap emerging on the world markets.

REs are not lacking in the earth's crust, and for example cerium ranks as the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million, in fact similar to copper. There are however few economically concentrated ores of the metals and their very similar chemical properties make the separation and isolation of individual REs in pure form difficult and expensive.

While China attempts to secure its dominance of the world markets for these metals, the scarcity of REs is compounded by smuggling. As much as 20,000 tonnes or one third of total exports of REs were smuggled out of China, which both reduces the price of the metals and ensures the more voracious depletion of the resource.

In my previous article, I wrote about the British focus on wind-power to meet its renewable energy targets for the European Union, by 2020. I commented that the rate of progress in building the required more than 4,000 new wind turbines had been rather slow to date, and now it appears debatable that there will be sufficient neodymium with which to fabricate the magnets for them, even if the manufacturing could be speeded-up.

China has been making strenuous actions to buy mines of RE ore around the world, to maintain its dominance of the global markets, and I wonder whether this will extend to Greenland, where the melting ice-sheet is likely to ease access to the rich veins of REs and other elements that the world needs to maintain its technologies and energy supplies.

Related Reading.
"Smuggling key factor in rare earths' scarcity," December 2010, Chemistry World, p6.