The Southwest Research Institute. Credit: Courtesy / Southwest Research Institute

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy awarded $3.27 million to San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to design a potentially revolutionary coal combustion model capable of recapturing 100% of carbon dioxide emissions.

If SwRI succeeds, coal could transform from a dying, greenhouse gas leviathan into a carbon-neutral energy source.

“As our nation continues to develop new energy alternatives, it’s prudent we also ensure our current energy sources are as efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally responsible as possible,” U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) stated in a news release Friday. “While coal is a finite resource, it continues to play a role in powering the United States. SwRI’s project will help take our nation’s use of coal into the 21st century, and I’m proud it’s received this substantial DOE grant to further this innovative work.”

Klaus Brun, director of the SwRI machinery program, said that SwRI will aim at increasing the scale and cost-efficiency of existing systems that burn coal in high-oxygen environments, creating a “concentrated, almost pure CO2 stream as a byproduct, which is then very easy to sequester – meaning you pump it into the ground into some storage facility.”

While such models already exist on a small scale, SwRI’s goal is for large utilities to use the expanded, more cost-efficient systems on a “megawatt scale.”

“It’s a very elegant solution, not an overly complicated solution,” Kraus told the Rivard Report, “but nobody’s tried it because there are quite a few technology hurdles to be overcome. And the biggest technology hurdle is the combustion process…burning the coal in the CO2 and oxygen stream.”

The SwRI project is one of 14 similar research and development projects receiving a total of $28 million as part of the Advanced Combustion Systems Program, DOE officials stated in a Wednesday news release.

With the Energy Information Administration predicting that coal, oil, and natural gas will only decrease their energy share from the current rate of 80% to 77% by 2040, the Advanced Combustion Systems Program aims at meeting national CO2 reduction targets by the improving fossil fuel systems’ performance and efficiency.

“The United States has several hundred years of proven coal reserves that could be utilized,” Brun explained. “The problem is how to utilize it in a clean way … Nobody’s building any coal power plants right now because to be able to meet environmental regulations is so excessively expensive.

“This technology of oxy-combustion provides an opportunity to meet these regulations at a reasonable cost.”

The federal program, however, also pledges to increase the “availability of existing and new fossil fuel-based power generation” by making it easier for plants to meet clean energy regulations. While such clean-energy plants could deliver huge benefits, the technology wouldn’t address potential increases in fossil fuel extraction and its related environmental costs.

The SwRI project, called “Pre-Project Planning for a Flameless Pressurized Oxy-combustion Pilot Plant,” will involve designing a “facility where various oxygen-combustion systems could be tested,” Brun said. He estimated that the facility’s design phase will take two years, with an additional three years dedicated to construction.

SwRI will partner with ITEA S.p.A, Jacobs, the Electric Power Research Institute, General Electric Global Research, and Peter Reineck Associates, all of which will contribute a combined $1 million to the project.

SwRI performs privately- and publicly-supported research on projects that range from space technology to chemical and automotive engineering. Its 1,260-acre headquarters at 6220 Culebra Rd. employs approximately 3,000 people.

Top image: The Southwest Research Institute. Photo Courtesy of the Southwest Research Institute.

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Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.