Researchers take major step in coal-burning technology

Researchers at the Power Systems Development Facility, located on Southern Company’s site in Wilsonville, Ala., have successfully burned coal in a transport reactor, a major advance toward using America’s most abundant fuel to make electricity more cleanly and cheaply.

The research facility, operated by Southern Company, is co-funded by Southern, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Electric Power Research Institute, M.W. Kellogg (the designer of the transport reactor), Foster Wheeler, Westinghouse, Industrial Filter and Pump, Combustion Power Company and other industrial technology sponsors. A transport reactor uses a combination of high internal pressure and recirculation to burn fuel more efficiently than a conventional power plant.

“Transport reactor technology has been used for a number of years in petroleum refining, but this is the first time coal has been burned in a transport reactor on a practical scale,” said Charles H. Goodman, vice president of research and environmental affairs at Southern Company Services, the Southern subsidiary operating the facility. “The notion that we can use this technology for commercial generation of electricity has gone from futuristic to near-future.”

The transport reactor is one of several technologies being tested at Wilsonville that could allow new or refitted power plants to make the same amount of electricity as conventional plants while burning one-third less coal. Over the next several years, engineers at the research facility also will study new methods of removing dust, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from coal combustion gases. Other technologies to be tested at the facility include the transport reactor operating as a coal gasifier; a Foster Wheeler second-generation circulating pressurized fluidized-bed combustor; advanced dust removal systems designed by Westinghouse, Combustion Power and Industrial Filter and Pump; and fuel cells.

“This is one of several promising advanced concepts being pursued by industry and the Department of Energy to ensure the United States makes effective use of its vast coal reserves to generate lower-cost electricity in an environmentally benign manner,” said Rita A. Bajura, deputy director of the Morgantown Energy Technology Center, a DOE Office of Fossil Energy lab representing the government’s interest in the project.

The first coal burn occurred Aug. 18 using Alabama bituminous coal. The transport reactor currently operates as a coal combustor, consuming 12 tons of coal a day while operating at 10 times atmospheric pressure and 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. A typical power plant furnace operates at normal atmospheric pressure.

Operation at design conditions to allow high-temperature, high-pressure testing of advanced dust filters will occur during a six-month shakedown period that began with the first coal burn. Design conditions involve temperatures up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, pressure 20 times normal, the consumption of 48 tons of coal a day, and the ability to gasify coal.

Operation of the system under these more difficult conditions will mark another major step in the development of the technology, Goodman said.

Southern Company (NYSE: SO), America’s largest producer of electricity, is the parent firm of five electric utilities: Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power and Savannah Electric. Other subsidiaries include Southern Electric International, Southern Communications Services, Southern Development and Investment Group and Southern Company Services. Southern Company’s stock is one of the 20 most widely held corporate stocks in America.