Where do the emissions go?
Carbon capture and storage -- perhaps the most promising clean coal technology -- catches and sequesters carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from stationary sources like power plants. Since CO2 contributes to global warming, reducing its release into the atmosphere has become a major international concern. In order to discover the most efficient and economical means of carbon capture, researchers have developed several technologies.
Flue-gas separation removes CO2 with a solvent, strips off the CO2 with steam, and condenses the steam into a concentrated stream. Flue gas separation renders commercially usable CO2, which helps offset its price. Another process, oxy-fuel combustion, burns the fuel in pure or enriched oxygen to create a flue gas composed primarily of CO2 and water -- this sidesteps the energy-intensive process of separating the CO2 from other flue gasses. A third technology, pre-combustion capture, removes the CO2 before it's burned as a part of a gasification process.
After capture, secure containers sequester the collected CO2 to prevent or stall its reentry into the atmosphere. The two storage options, geologic and oceanic, must contain the CO2 until peak emissions subside hundreds of years from now. Geologic storage involves injecting CO2 into the earth. Depleted oil or gas fields and deep saline aquifers safely contain CO2 while unminable coal seams absorb it. A process called enhanced oil recovery already uses CO2 to maintain pressure and improve extraction in oil reservoirs.
Ocean storage, a technology still in its early stages, involves injecting liquid CO2 into waters 500 to 3,000 meters deep, where it dissolves under pressure. However, this method would slightly decrease pH and potentially harm marine habitats. All forms of CO2 storage require careful preparation and monitoring to avoid creating environmental problems that outweigh the benefits of CO2 containment.
Since alternative forms of energy cannot yet replace a power source as cheap and plentiful as coal, clean coal technology promises to mitigate the increasingly severe climactic effects of coal emissions. Utility companies and businesses do not, however, always accept technology purely for the sake of the environment -- the technology must first make economic sense.
Cleaning coal and sequestering its emissions significantly raises the per-BTU price of what would otherwise be an inexpensive fuel. While selling byproducts like gypsum or commercial CO2 for sodas and dry ice can offset the price of clean coal technologies, a charge on carbon could make emission-reduction financially realistic.
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