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Coal’s Fix-it Team

America’s coal-fired power plants are getting old.

They work just fine to generate reliable electricity. But they were built according to design ideas popular in the middle of the last century.

Today, electric utilities need something different. As concerns about power plant emissions continue to grow, electric utilities must make changes to these old plants, or build new ones.

What will work best?

The answers are emerging in a suburban shopping district in Bowling Green. Amid grocery stores, nail salons, and fast-food shops, an ordinary looking section of an old mall has a new purpose. Instead of shops, these buildings now contain an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind collection of laboratories filled with ultra-modern scientific devices.

Experts at the Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology at Western Kentucky University work with a stunning array of high-tech gadgets to find solutions to today’s energy problems. For these dedicated men and women, “putting research into practice” is more than a clever slogan—it’s why they come to work every day.

Institute seeks answers to tough questions
Wei-Ping Pan, the institute’s director and a professor of chemistry at WKU, says: “The thrill that comes with solving a problem is the most exciting aspect of my work that makes me love my job more and more. To help society or the nation solve a dilemma is exciting—it doesn’t matter if it is a big problem or a small problem.”

Every day is different here, with many experiments in progress throughout the building. Top questions for the institute include:

• How hot does coal burn if it is mixed with another material, such as switchgrass?

• What is the difference in carbon dioxide emissions from plain coal versus coal burned with another substance?

• What material will attract and hold mercury so it can be separated from other emissions?

• What is the best size and shape for new power plant chambers that can burn coal so there are fewer emissions of all kinds?

WKU has a distinguished history of finding answers to tough questions like these. The Thermal Analysis Laboratory (established in 1986) focuses on the effect heat has on solids, gases, and liquids. In the Combustion Laboratory (established in 1993), scientists study what happens when things burn. The Emissions and Control Laboratory (established in 2001) can sample and measure the byproducts of combustion. Bringing these labs under one roof at the institute allows different departments to share information.

Some of the equipment in the labs would look familiar to any middle school student. Computer keyboards and display screens, glass beakers marked in milliliters instead of ounces—so far, so good. These objects can test and measure things a visitor can see and feel.

High school students might recognize a few of the top-of-the-line industrial-grade measuring tools. Powerful scanners can peer into and measure the chemical properties of substances the human eye cannot distinguish without such help.

Only a few people might recognize the “high-pressure thermal gas analyzer”—it’s one of only five such devices in the nation. This unique machine allows institute scientists to discover weight changes in tiny particles at different temperatures, all without touching the items being measured.

Learning step by step
Students typically repeat other people’s experiments by following steps in a textbook. At the cutting edge of science in the institute’s various labs, work is not like that. Professionals here use standard equipment in new ways, and invent new devices that they build from scratch. One section includes a state-of-the-art machine shop, complete with a drill press and welding equipment.

A single experiment, increasing the amount of a certain ingredient by 1 percent each day, that is itself part of a much larger project, could take weeks, months, or even years to complete. Associate Director Yan Cao says, “Patience and enthusiasm are essential for this kind of work because it keeps up the motivation.”

Such attention to detail, a strong interest in old-fashioned tinkering, plus the ability to take a second or third look at results for new clues all help, too. The regular staff at the institute includes top-notch chemists, engineers, and physicists, with an ever-changing array of graduate and undergraduate college students from Kentucky and around the world eager to learn by doing.

These young men and women learn an extra lesson: science doesn’t always move in a straight line of steps leading forward. Cao says: “Lots of times we have setbacks because the experiment fails. However, no experiment is useless or worthless because we learn from each trial and that enables us to try again with smarter and better ideas.”

Pan adds: “Not only do students learn from us, but we learn from them. They always have challenging questions that force us to step back and look at the problem in another point of view. Looking at problems from different angles helps us generate new ideas and come up with new technology.”


Labs at the Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology have already:

• Developed practical ways to measure, reduce, and control mercury emissions, which have now been used at more than 175 older coal-fired power plants.

• Successfully tested “ammonia scrubbing” technology to capture carbon dioxide at coal-fired power plants while also producing a useful byproduct, a fertilizer for crops.

• Developed a working model for a “chemical looping combustion technology” that concentrates and captures carbon dioxide during burning instead of afterward, to save energy used within a power plant.

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