Australia and the future of coal

Published April 1, 2001

On a recent trip with family and friends, I had the pleasure of traveling through Australia . . . and learning that we have much to learn from the Aussies about energy.

Two hours north of Sidney we toured the boilers and plant of a 1500 megawatt fluidized-bed coal-burning power plant under construction. We got a good look at the future of electrical energy (at least on the Pacific Rim–it appears that in America we may be returning to oil lamps).

This fabulous work of industrial art was built in Australia’s coal belt. The power plant is located adjacent to a coal mine and is intended to burn the dregs of what is produced. A mile-long conveyor belt, looking a bit like a twenty-first century ski-lift, is ready to bring a slurry of dust, scraps, and grindings from the mine, which used to be considered waste, to a state-of-the-art fuel injection system constructed by a Connecticut firm.

The fuel is injected into a bed of sand two meters thick, essentially floating on the wings of two 4000 horsepower blowers and heated to 1000ºC. Water pipes leading to the facility’s 10-story superheater carry heat out of the sand as the coal burns, preventing the temperature from rising in the bed and virtually eliminating the formation of nitrogen oxides, which develop in combustion temperatures above 1700ºC.

Lime mixed with the sand bed precipitates sulfur, quite effectively eliminating the persistent sulfur oxides associated with coal-burning. The exhaust is drawn through cyclone-producing piping, where most particles are separated in the resulting virtual centrifuge and through the superheater, into a traditional “baghouse” where finer particles are scrubbed.

This Redbank Power Station represents the latest in coal-burning technology, and its location on Australia’s Pacific coast is no accident. Economic development throughout the Pacific Rim–from Australia to China, from Indonesia to Malaysia–is being fueled by coal.

Brian Bishop is the director of Rhode Island Wiseuse and the host of Rule Free Radio evenings from 7:00-8:00 on WICE 550 AM, the Buzz.