New technology could stoke clean coal-powered cars

  • An OSU student holds up bottles of pulverized coal and iron oxide pellets/Chevrolet Volt

    An OSU student holds up bottles of pulverized coal and iron oxide pellets/Chevrolet Volt  (Jo McCulty - Ohio State University/Chevrolet)

  • 1938 Citroën Berline 11 Gazogene

    1938 Citroën Berline 11 Gazogene  (Lane Motor Museum)

New technological advances may make it possible in the near future to engineer a coal-powered car so clean that it produces nearly no polluting emissions, including carbon dioxide, experts tell FoxNews.com.

“There are many exciting possibilities for the clean coal technology,” says Liang-Shih Fan, a chemical engineer and director of Ohio State University’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory. “We found a way to release the heat from coal without burning it. This could be applicable for many industries.”

Fan last week disclosed that he had discovered a way to get the energy out of coal without burning it, using iron-oxide pellets as an oxygen source, and contain the reaction in a small chamber from which pollutants cannot escape. The only waste product would be water and solid coal ash -- no greenhouse gases. As an added benefit, the metal from the iron-oxide is recyclable.

The energy creation process is commonly known as “oxidation,” and is the chemical combination of a substance with oxygen. The use of the process is envisioned by Fan and his colleagues as a replacement for old-fashioned coal power plants, which spew greenhouse gases.

Auto Industry, Researchers Excited

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Auto industry experts and other researchers are excited about the prospects for use of Fan’s clean coal technology to power fleets of cars across America, and as a possible rival to battery-powered hybrids and electric vehicles already in use.

If the technology can be successfully miniaturized enough to fit into cars, the fueling infrastructure needed to service them would not be all that difficult to develop, experts say.

“In using clean coal pellets, a customer could pull up to a filling station, where the clean coal pellets would be introduced into the on-car storage tank. This clean coal would then be used to generate electricity through an on-board generator, which would charge up the ultracapacitors,” suggests Chad Hall, founder and vice president of Ioxus, in Oneonta, N.Y., a maker of ultracapacitors for the auto industry.

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“While the generator supplies a steady output of energy for maintaining even speeds, the capacitor would be used for acceleration, or as an assist during hill-climbing,” said Hall. “The capacitors would continuously be recharged from the generator…and would also provide the necessary energy and heat to initiate the pellet oxidizing reaction during start-up.”

Sharon Basel, a spokeswoman for General Motors Corp.’s environment, energy and safety communications department, called the use of Fan’s technology to power cars “an interesting concept.”
Basel notes that coal has been used as a power source for automobiles in the past, but in a much more polluting form. Crafty civilians in occupied France during World War II retrofitted cars to run on coal due to gasoline rationing, imposed by the Nazis and Vichy government. The range of cars like the 1938 Citroen Berline Gazogene 11 on display at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville was about 30 miles between fill ups, and only a handful of these converted cars are around today.

Two containers under the front fenders were filled with coal and ignited. Methane gas would rise out the tops of the containers to feed a special carburetor fitted to a converted 4-cylinder internal combustion engine. These cars were not environmentally friendly – nor were they meant to be. They were used by a desperate people to survive during wartime.

Basel also points out that liquefied coal is also used today as an automobile fuel in South Africa, which produces a huge amount of coal. That fuel isn’t clean coal either, but rather relies on a hybrid technology.

“They are using a technology that utilizes coal to produce a gas mixture, called synthesis gas, containing hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which is used as a building block to produce hydrocarbon liquids, such as gasoline and diesel, through a process called Fisher-Trospsch technology,” Basel tells FoxNews.com.  “The process requires the synthesis gas to be pressurized to a very high pressure prior to the FT process, which makes the technology expensive.”

Challenges Ahead

There are several challenges for clean coal cars to overcome, similar to those that have been encountered by electric and hybrid cars. Consumers may be initially cautious about such an innovation.

“The big problem with introducing any innovation like this in the auto industry is that by definition, cars are part of a whole system,” Rita Gunther McGrath, an associate professor at Columbia Business School, tells FoxNews.com. “Unless there is capacity to re-supply the auto with the material, people operating in anything other than an absolutely fixed route are going to be anxious about adopting it because they are afraid of getting stuck.”

GM, of course, already has a focus on electrified cars, says Basel, including the Chevy Volt and Cadillac ELR, but notes that coal is usually used to fuel the power plants that generate the electricity used to charge them. Fan’s technology could reduce the emissions of those power plants, and thus lower the already small environmental footprint of these electric cars, a first step to a clean coal-powered highway of tomorrow.