Tampa Electric and the U.S. Department of Energy collaborated on research about coal gasification technologies at a joint project at the Polk Power Station. According to a DOE report, the Polk facility is one of the cleanest coal-based power plants in the world.

A growing consensus asserts that increased demand for electricity will cement coal’s place in the energy portfolio. In fact, more than half of the electricity produced in the United States comes from coal. With demand for electricity expected to double by 2050, and renewable resources still some time away from offsetting increased demand, it is clear that coal is here to stay. And, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, researchers say that if gasification becomes common place, coal can be used cleanly.

“Coal gasification offers one of the most versatile and clean ways to convert coal into electricity, hydrogen and other valuable energy products,” says George Muntean, staff scientist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, during his presentation at the AAAS symposium entitled “Coal Gasification, Myths, Challenges and Opportunities.”

According to Muntean, gasification provides significant economic and environmental benefits to conventional coal power plants. Rather than burning coal directly, gasification breaks coal down into its basic chemical constituents using high temperature and pressure. Because of this, carbon dioxide can be captured from a gas stream far more easily than from the smokestacks of a conventional coal plant.

Many experts predict that coal gasification will be at the heart of clean coal technology if current lifespan and economic challenges are addressed. One significant challenge is the historically short lifespan of refractories, which are used to line and protect the inside of a gasifier. Currently, refractories have a lifespan of 12 to 16 months. The relining of a gasifier costs approximately $1 million and requires three to six weeks of downtime.