Posted by: Lawyer Sanders | February 13, 2009

Environmental lawyer Sanders says commercial technology for recovering coal fines at power plants may provide solution to dangerous coal-waste ponds in Kentucky.

The first commercial use of an advanced coal-cleaning system comprising two advanced separation technologies will take place this summer when it is used to produce clean, upgraded coal from a large fine-coal waste pond located in southern West Virginia. Developed with support from the Department of Energy, the innovative system will create useable fuel from discarded “waste” and could be used to clean up the hundreds of potentially deadly coal-waste “impoundments”—waste ponds behind earthen dams—that dot the Appalachian mountains.


The innovative separation system will be installed near Pineville, W.Va., at property owned by Pinnacle Mining Company. It uses two processes: One produces clean coal by separating impurities like clays, silica, and pyrite from waste coal, and the other separates water from the cleaned coal. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Beard Technologies, Inc., and the Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) developed the two-step separation system under NETL’s Solid Fuels and Feedstocks Program, which aims to reduce the high cost of processing fine coal.


Separating impurities from coal will be achieved using the Microcel™ flotation column, which was developed and patented in the mid-1980s by Virginia Tech. The process uses tiny air bubbles to recover coal fines—microscopic coal particles—that are too small to be recovered with conventional methods. The clean coal product from the column will then be pumped to vacuum filters to remove water.  Novel dewatering aids developed at Virginia Tech and licensed to Nalco, a large chemicals company, are added to the coal to facilitate the dewatering process. The result is a clean, low-moisture fuel that can be used for combustion. Beard Technologies plans to use the advanced separation system to produce 240,000 tons per year of clean coal from the waste coal in the impoundment.


Fine coal dewatering technology is a major step forward in recovering coal fines from impoundments.  Utilities burning coal for electricity generation cannot economically use coal fines containing excessive moisture. Typically, fine coal is 25–30 percent moisture by weight, which is too high to burn in modern boilers.  


 The Energy Department estimates that 30–50 million tons of coal fines are discarded annually into impoundments because of the high cost of processing fine coal. This adds to the more than 2 billion tons of coal already in about 700 fine coal impoundments, most of which are located in central Appalachia.


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