Clean coal research in running for prize

Australian research into new and unique technology to turn low-rank coals into a much-improved and far more environmentally-friendly fuel for power generation and catalytic coal gasification has been invited to participate in a major European energy prize.


Developed and owned by Clean Coal Technology Pty Ltd, the project has had its research base at La Trobe University for the past decade. Led by Dr George Domazetis, the companys Managing Director, it is being considered for the New Frontiers of Hydrocarbons prize, the 300,000 top-category in the Italian-based Eni Awards.  

Dr Domazetis, a La Trobe PhD graduate and an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, said Enis Scientific Commission has announced that the Australian project will be included in its final deliberations on the winners at the end of January

'Low-rank coals (brown coal, lignite and sub-bituminous coal) constitute about half of the worlds coal resources and are the cheapest to mine,' says Dr Domazetis.

Using state-of-the-art research in the chemical and physical sciences, the project has involved extensive studies into the properties and quality of low-rank coals and a range of processing problems as part of an overall coherent research strategy into cleaner energy.

Dr Domazetis says the result is a technology that can improve coal-fired power generation efficiency to 40-50 per cent (from the present 30 percent) and thermal efficiency up to 90 per cent while cutting greenhouse emissions. It removes ash that fouls power station boilers and, using catalysts, can produce hydrogen by steam gasification.

While Dr Domazetis is the driver and originator of the project, other team members are Reader in Chemistry, Dr Bruce James, Honorary Research Fellow in Physics, Dr John Liesegang, and two PhD scholars in chemistry, Monthida Raoarun and Pietro Barilla.  Dr James has been involved with the chemistry and analytical aspects, and Dr Liesegang with solid-state physical measurements and instrumentation.  

About a dozen La Trobe scientists and postgraduate students have worked on the project during the last decade, including members of the Universitys Centre for Materials and Surface Science and Environmental Geoscience.

Dr Domazetis brought the project to La Trobe ten years ago because, he says, the University 'had the right fit of expertise and instrumentation.' Since then, it has grown from dealing with brown coal to all low-rank coals in the world. Dr Domazetis has also carried out leading-edge quantum mechanics molecular coal modelling studies on catalytic gasification, supported by both the Victorian and Australian partnerships for advanced computing (APAC and VPAC).

'This, and the excellent PhD research in the Department of Chemistry, has enabled significant progress on producing hydrogen from coal and steam,' he says.

'Coal has a problematic standing among fossil fuels,' says Dr Domazetis, who advocates producing cleaner energy by using less coal more efficiently, rather than using more coal and energy by embarking on carbon sequestration from low-efficient power stations.

'Natural gas is processed to remove impurities; oil refineries produce various fuels for specific applications but, in the 21st century, coal alone is still being used "as-mined".'

Dr Domazetis says at the heart of the project is a unique design for a coal processing vessel, coated with acid resistant linings to handle low quality coal at any level of acidity. A number of cleaning cycles then wash out all dissolved salts to produce coal with levels of ash down to as little as a few parts per million.

'The process uses low-cost heat and can cheaply reduce moisture. It also adds catalysts to low-rank coals for steam gasification; this technology produces more hydrogen, and may be developed further into zero emissions plants, because carbon dioxide is separated and is not released into the atmosphere.'
With escalating demand for energy and great environmental concern over the use of dirty coal, Dr Domazetis says recognition of cleaner coal research at La Trobe, by progressing to the finals list in the Eni Awards, is very pleasing.  There are close to 500 entries in this years awards, he says. Win or not, we are very confident about the quality of our work and excited that it has got so far.

However, he says the coal mining industry might have little interest in a process that would reduce demand for its product, and he describes the field as by far the most difficult R&D in Australia. Undaunted, he is seeking investment to build a pilot plant as part of his companys commercialisation strategy.
Before founding Clean Coal Technology Pty Ltd, Dr Domazetis was a Research Fellow at the Australian National University, and worked as a Senior Research Scientist with the former State Electricity Commission of Victoria for about thirteen years.

Support for the research has come mainly from La Trobe University, including its Industry Collaborative Grant Scheme, as well as from APAC and VPAC.

Eni is a multi-national energy corporation based in Italy. Its awards encourage better use of energy resources, promote environmental studies and reward new researchers. Dr Domazetis says last years awards were presented at the Accademia dei Lincei, with the President of Italy as patron. The winners were from the USA and Germany.

For interviews or further information, please contact Dr Domazetis,
Tel: 9841 9142, or Email:   (Mob. 0402 817 501)