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The race to catch carbon: New life for coal energy

Reporter: Kristiaan Yeo 丨 CCTV.com

03-19-2015 10:44 BJT

Coal, like oil, is one of the world's biggest energy sources. China gets around 80 percent of its power from coal. But it's one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, releasing high levels of CO2, sulphur and dust into the air.

Across the world, like in China, the race is on to find new ways of making coal cleaner and less harmful to the environment. Kristiaan Yeo has been to a project in Canada, which uses technology that could potentially change the world.

It fueled the industrial revolution and remains the planet's number one source of power. But coal is the biggest contributor to global C-O-2 emissions and with carbon reduction targets set around the globe, coal will have to clean up its act, a challenge for power companies and governments everywhere.

Coal 's reputation as a dirty type of fossil fuel has suffered, but power stations like this one are starting to harness technology to make the burning process much cleaner to give coal a new life.

The Boundary Dam power plant in Saskatchewan is home to the world's first working "clean coal" technology. Thanks to a process called carbon capture and storage, 90% of carbon dioxide and 100% of sulfur can be secured and stopped from entering the atmosphere.

"We've got an abundant supply of low cost coal right on our doorstep and we really wanna continue to make use of that resource. This project is a game changer," said Tim Schuster, director of Boundary Dam Power Station.

What's happening in this building really could change the way the world burns coal. This is the carbon capture plant, and it's where sulfuric acid and carbon dioxide are extracted from the coal-burning process and those by-products are then sold on the open market. So, not only is this carbon capture plant helping protect the environment, it's also helping the company make more money.

There is some controversy over where this liquefied C-O-2 then goes. Most from this plant is sold to oil drillers, who use it for Enhanced Oil Recovery, a sort of fracking for oil. Some environmentalists say that's just passing on the potential to pollute elsewhere. There's also concern about leakage, when the C-O-2 is sent deep underground for long-term storage.

Research is ongoing to see whether C-O-2 can be stored underground and underwater safely and what happens while it's down there.

"We're able to sample it and see how the changes of the fluids might be happening and also it will give us information on how the CO2 has migrated at what concentrates, at what saturations the CO2 has reached the well," said Kyle Worth, project manager of Aquistore.

Thousands more carbon capture facilities like Boundary Dam's must be built to make a dent in carbon emissions by 2050. So far, just 55 projects are in planning, construction or testing stage worldwide. Most of these are in the US, China or Canada, but other countries are looking.

VP of SaskPower, Mike Monea, said, "China, Norway, Australia, any country that has coal is interested in what we're doing because it really is a lens into the future. We have countries that border Russia for example that are interested in utilizing their coal resources rather than being dependent on natural gas, then we have countries that are emerging that simply cannot afford to build a nuclear plant or go into renewables in a big way, but they have a large source of coal."

A United Nations' report claims China and the US, the world's two biggest polluters, must work closely on carbon capture development. This technology, the UN says, is simply not optional. Almost all coal (90%) and gas (80%) plants in China will have to be carbon capture ready if the world is to reduce its carbon footprint. 

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