Coal's Power: Pittsburgh region hosts cutting-edge coal research

Like the resource itself, coal research is centered in the region's universities and laboratories


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Fourth in a series .

The Pittsburgh Coal Seam was not the reason the French and British settled here. That honor goes to the strategic importance of the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.

That coal seam is why a city grew up here, according to Joel Tarr, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

"Coal is critical," Mr. Tarr said. "Coal is a great natural resource. It was cheap energy and easily accessible" because the Pittsburgh seam is close to the surface.

Pittsburgh today is still dependent on coal -- and the future of coal is in many ways dependent on Pittsburgh.

The street lamps once powered by coal gas have been replaced by electric streetlights, the power for which also is generated from coal. The region also is home to a vibrant coal industry, the most obvious symbol of which is the Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins hockey team plays.

Perhaps lesser known is the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park, where research is conducted on coal and other fuels or potential fuels. There researchers take an idea, maybe one that has worked on a small scale, and bring it all the way to a demonstration project.

Coal is a major subject of research in the region, mostly because the region has so much of it.

"Coal is mined in half of the states, but it is used in all of the states," Tom Sarkus, director of the Project Financing and Technology Deployment Division at the South Park laboratory.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory has five sites, the largest in Morgantown, W.Va., and South Park. The others are in Fairbanks, Alaska; Albany, Ore.; and Sugarland, Texas.

The bedrock of Western Pennsylvania could be seen as coal, a key natural resource that has long been an economic generator. The energy industry may be changing but coal still runs through many parts of life here.

• Sunday: A long history, a key industry

• Monday: The rules about your coal

• Tuesday: High-tech under the ground

• Wednesday: A concentration of expertise

• Thursday: Moving the goods

• Friday: A business in safety

The laboratory's organization chart for the Strategic Center for Coal shows the huge number of ways that coal is being studied: for fuels, such as creating an alternative to gasoline; for power systems; and for gasification, which was developed in the late 1700s and early 1800s and now is called syngas, a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

There is a division on coal exhaust sequestration to capture carbon dioxide, the pollutant blamed for global warming. Researchers are trying to find a way to pull carbon dioxide out of power plant emissions in a pure form that would then be pumped into oil wells for the extraction of oil.

All of the research done at the labs is done in cooperation with local universities. The technology laboratories in South Park and Morgantown work with the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

"This region is almost a perfect storm for innovation," Cynthia Powell, director of the office of research and development at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, said.

Ms. Powell is based at the Oregon site but spends much of her time in Pittsburgh, where she works with researchers.

"I can't think of a place that is better situated than Pittsburgh for leading the country into the next energy revolution," she said.

Researchers here are working with fossil fuels and nuclear materials and also are looking into renewable energies, such as solar power and wind.

"The catch with renewable energies is they tend to be a local solution," Ms. Powell said, which has led scientists into fields such as energy storage and working with smart power grids that minimize energy waste.

She said the best part of the research is working with people from different backgrounds. At the National Energy Technology Laboratory, "we don't just give money to universities and say 'Go do research.' We do research together."


Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published December 28, 2011 5:00 AM


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