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Electric Inventors

A few miles northwest of the University of Kentucky’s main campus in Lexington, a group of scientists searches for ways to improve the production of electricity.

They work for UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, in a gray three-story building amid a beautiful setting of horse farms. The building houses 87 staffers, including more than 30 scientists and engineers.

With an annual budget of $3.8 million of state funds provided through the University of Kentucky, as well as money from the U.S. Department of Energy and private companies, the Center is one of a handful of organizations seeking to improve the nation’s energy industry. The Kentucky Center has spent the last 25 years focusing on coal.

Research projects at the Center investigate the chemistry of fuels, seek patents for new manufacturing methods for carbon materials, and search for ways to remove pollutants before they reach the air.

Center Director Dr. Ari Geertsema says, “Good technology development invariably rests on sound science. So our researchers are engaged in detailed scientific pursuits, often at the small-scale creative phase of investigations. Yet they also maintain a balance between scientific experiments and practical technology developments.”

About three years ago Center scientists working with “coal fines,” the tiny particles of coal dust left over after mining, found that adding wood fiber such as sawdust made the coal fines easier to handle and transport. With three million tons of unmarketable coal fines, and one hundred thousand tons of annual sawdust waste produced each year in Kentucky alone, a practical use for these materials would offer huge benefits.

Dr. Darrell Taulbee, Industrial Support coordinator and principal investigator for the current phase of the project, says, “We’d like to develop a way to combine coal fines and sawdust into something like a charcoal briquette. That would allow this new product created out of previously wasted materials to be conveniently transported to and within an electric utility’s generating facility to use as a fuel.”

The first step in “The Sawdust Project,” says Dr. Taulbee, is to find an economical and environmentally friendly material that will hold the fines and sawdust together. The current list of 20 possible binders includes lime, asphalt, and molasses.

Dr. Taulbee says, “I grew up in Breathitt County, so I’m particularly interested in developing something that could benefit the economies in the coal- and timber-producing regions of our state.” Using a Kentucky agricultural product such as molasses would be a bonus.

Dr. Taulbee expects the binder selections to be completed by the middle of this year, followed by large-scale tests. The research will continue with production of actual briquettes, then combustion trials and an economic evaluation. That phase should be complete by the end of 2004.

While Dr. Taulbee’s team works to improve what happens before electricity is generated, Dr. James Hower works on projects to solve a problem that occurs after generation.

Burning coal leaves residues of fly ash and bottom ash. Utilities capture these little particles and store them as a kind of slurry in large ponds at coal-fired generating plants throughout the world.

The Center for Applied Energy Research hopes to develop new uses for fly ash. The project Dr. Hower is working on involves separating the components of the leftover ash by size and composition.

“Some of the material could be re-burned and some could be turned into other useful products,” says Dr. Hower. “Some of the leftover ash can be used as a substitute for Portland cement in ready-mix, and some may be useful as a component of concrete blocks.”

The results, says Dr. Hower, could save utilities money by not having to build storage areas, and provide extra income by selling the resulting products.

Research like this takes years before producing practical results. But as Dr. Geertsema points out, “The future of energy technology will be a matter of gradual improvements that come about as the result of incremental changes.”

To find out more about UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, visit their Web site at www.caer.uky.edu.

Next month: Merchant power plants in Kentucky

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