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Pittsburgh Commands Mother Nature's Secret Legacy to
Lead Energy Technology Development

Given Pittsburgh’s status as the only city in the world built upon coal beds, it is suiting that the region embraced by three rivers on the northeastern margin of the 80,000-square-mile Appalachian Coal Field be regarded as a nexus of energy technology development. While recent events have put Pittsburgh in the center of a flurry of energy technology developments, the genesis of Pittsburgh’s energy legacy predates the city’s founding.

It started about 300 million years ago during a time when the biological forebears of the coal and oil and natural gas that fuels our lives today grew in abundance in the brackish, trackless swampland that inhabited much of our inchoate continent. For countless eons, Mother Nature fused hydrogen into helium on the surface of the Sun and, using the residual energy from the fusion process to make light, excited electrons in leaves on Earth to transmute carbon and hydrogen into new molecular configurations, called hydrocarbons.

Then, as the millennia of organic debris accumulated, she worked her charm again as if she knew that some day men would come in search of warmth and work and light. She preserved her handiwork with a blanket of water to protect it from the ravages of oxygen and consequent escape into the atmosphere. Her finishing touch came in the form of the tectonic forces that resulted in the geologic formation known as the Allegheny Syncline, whose relentless heat and constant force compressed peat into coal, pressed oil from a stew of organic debris, squeezed out the water, and cooked up the gas.

By the time man arrived, the carbon and hydrogen were right here where she had put them ages before. By then, the land burgeoned from its abundance of energy-laden solids, liquids and gases. Mother Nature’s energy legacy would become Pittsburgh’s. Before Columbus, native North Americans collected Seneca oil from seeps at Slippery Rock and Oil Creek. Early settlers extracted wood from abundant forests and waterpower from innumerable streams. Coal burst through the surface of the earth everywhere and natural gas spouted accidentally from wells as a by-product of drilling for salt brine. Then in 1859, the oil came in, 70 feet below the surface in Titusville, 100-odd miles north of Pittsburgh.

From Energy to Industry

By the middle of the 19th century, Pittsburgh's abundant energy resources had transformed it from a frontier stronghold to a hotbed of industry. The region’s reputation as a manufacturing powerhouse lured the young inventor, George Westinghouse, who after changing the world with a railway airbrake and signaling system, went on to change it again by collaborating with Nikola Tesla to establish alternating current as the standard for electric power generation and utilization. Although nuclear energy was not on anybody's radar during Westinghouse's tenure as Inventor Supreme, the task of harnessing nuclear power for peaceful purposes fell to his corporate scion with the design and construction of the world's first peacetime nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, just a short drive from Pittsburgh International Airport. Today, the corporate descendant of Westinghouse Nuclear Systems, the Bettis Laboratory, performs nuclear facility maintenance and provides training in nuclear technology at the Bettis Reactor Engineering School in Pittsburgh.

Today, 3,000 millennia after Mother Nature laid down the Pittsburgh, Kittanning and Freeport coal beds, as though paying belated homage to her antediluvian testament, an aptly fortuitous surprise sits perched atop an inconspicuous forest hilltop in an idyllic section of South Park Township, about 11 miles south of Pittsburgh. There, above a 100-year-old coal mine dug into the primordial Pittsburgh Coal Seam, deemed to be one of the most valuable mineral deposits in the world, behind chain link fences and federal guards, one of the world's most important energy brain trusts bustles each day at the leading edge of fossil energy technology. Here is the headquarters of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

Originally founded in 1910 as the Bureau of Mines (BOM), NETL evolved out of a succession of energy-focused government agencies, departments and technology centers until 1999 when it became the nation’s official government laboratory responsible for the advancement of energy science, technology, practice and infrastructure. Now, with an annual budget of $750 million, NETL manages scores of intramural research projects at five locations around the United States and innumerable others with local universities, small- and medium-sized businesses, multinational corporations and foreign governments. In addition to improving mine safety, in the past century the Laboratory has been a principal force in the development of such noteworthy accomplishments as the gasification and liquefaction of coal, the development of advanced electric power generation systems, the reduction of atmospheric pollutants and innumerable less grandiose, but no less valuable, scientific advancements that have made energy available and affordable for the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Lessons Learned, Knowledge Gained

The Bureau of Mines was established in response to the coal mine explosions and fires that had plagued the industry for decades. Ironically, unlike NETL’s mission today, BOM’s original mandate was not to find new sources of energy, but to find ways of taming the most bountiful one we had – coal. During the heyday of mine safety research, BOM researchers conducted more than 2,400 scientific explosions, in their experimental South Park coal mine to establish the environmental, chemical and physical causes of mine explosions and fires.

Quite naturally, investigations into the scientific phenomena behind coal ignition and combustion led to a deep understanding of the chemical and physical characteristics of coal, as well as its extended family of liquid and gaseous relatives, oil and gas, both fossil and synthetic. That expertise resulted in a logical expansion of the agency’s endeavors to include fossil energy research of every variety.

As early as the 1920s, the Bruceton Research Center, as the South Park facility was known, closely followed the work of the German scientists, Friedrich Bergius, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, who developed methods for gasifying and liquefying coal. As NETL’s Deputy Director of Research and Development, Dr. Joseph Parise, tells it, “One of the reasons World War I ended was that Germany did not have liquid fuels to run the war. So in the early 1920s, Kaiser von Wilhelm commissioned the development of methods to convert indigenous coal into liquid fuels. A lot of the technology that occurs here today finds its roots in that technology.”

Fuel from Water

That technology is based upon one of Mother Nature’s most mysterious and elusive secrets: the water-gas shift reaction. This process centers on the fact that when exposed to high-pressure steam (H2O), heated hydrocarbons (HC), such as coal, oil, gas or biomass, undergo a chemical reformation whereby carbon atoms (C) in the hydrocarbons dissociate from their hydrogen partners (H) and associate with the oxygen atoms (O) in the steam (H2O), thereby liberating hydrogen atoms (H) for use as fuel and leaving behind a concentrated stream of CO2. In practice, metal catalysts are used to accelerate the process.

Although common iron is the most widely used catalyst in synthetic fuel production, today’s energy scientists are furiously searching for others due to the potential value of accelerating chemical reactions for energy production.

The Other Side of Success

From coal gasification and liquefaction BOM’s mission progressed to emission controls beginning in the 1950s. NETL’s Dr. Thomas Sarkus, elaborated upon the step-wise evolution of the effort: “In the 1950s and 1960s, the first thing people were concerned about was particulate emissions. Then it was sulfur, and scrubbers were installed in the 1970s and 1980s. Then in the 1990s it was nitrogen oxides. The next one is mercury. And after that it will be CO2 which has been identified as a greenhouse gas.”

Although energy and air pollution might appear to be unrelated topics, the issue of global warming has married them - probably forever. CMU’s Professor Granger Morgan contends that many participants in the political debate suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding between the two. “With sulfur and nitrogen pollution, if I emit at a constant level, the concentrations stay constant. If I drop them, then within hours or days, the concentration drops down,” he said while drawing a pair of curves on a scrap of paper. “CO2 stays in the atmosphere for more than 100 years, so it’s not like that. If you want to reduce CO2 concentrations, you have to reduce emissions by something like 80 percent. That has profound implications for the energy industry. This is widely understood in the scientific community. There's a lot of uncertainty about climate issues. There's absolutely no uncertainty about this.”

Unlike other atmospheric pollutants, such as oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, that combine with other elements in the atmosphere to form new molecules, carbon dioxide depends upon a complex, centuries-long cycle in which the biosphere absorbs and holds carbon for various lengths of time in things like forests, oceans, air, plants, rocks, animals and people, ultimately achieving a state of dynamic equilibrium. Today, we are emitting CO2 faster than those natural carbon sinks can absorb it. The result is an imbalance of the carbon cycle with consequent accumulation of atmospheric CO2.

Future Prospects

For the past 15 or so years, Professor Morgan and colleague Professor Lester Lave have looked at the socioeconomic and political sides of the energy/economy/environment equation and come to some startling conclusions, many of which have just begun to tread their way into popular conversation.

Professor Lave offered his take on the current situation: “We currently use 140 billion gallons of gasoline a year. Because ethanol has less energy per gallon, we would need 200 billion gallons of ethanol to replace all that gasoline. Without doing some drastic things, we cannot produce more than about a hundred billion gallons a year. But we can get rid of gasoline as a fuel with a plug-in hybrid. If we had a battery that will take you 20 to 30 miles that you would charge by plugging it into an electrical receptacle, that would reduce gasoline consumption by 70 percent because almost all the trips in the United States are short trips. That means that we could reduce our demand for liquid ethanol from 200 billion gallons per year down to 60 billion gallons per year. So you could eliminate gasoline for fuel from outside of NAFTA,” he said, adding, “Every utility in the United States would cheer if we did this, because you would charge the batteries overnight, when demand for electricity is very low.”   Both Drs. Lave and Morgan acknowledge that improved batteries would be needed to make the technology cost-effective, but they indicate that the technology should be possible.

Whatever technologies, or mix of technologies, prevail, everybody agrees that, given a swelling world population and the emergence of global affluence, world energy consumption cannot do anything but increase by about 50 percent by 2050. To make matters worse, the United States has suffered a critical shortfall of new power plant construction over the past several decades. NETL’s Sarkus explained, “ In recent years, very few utilities have built base load plants. They are reluctant to undertake a one to two-billion-dollar capital investment if it might weaken their finances.”

Energy Economics

In light of the numerous unpredictable variables in the energy production/profit generation model, such reluctance would appear to be prudent. At this year’s American Wind Energy Association conference and the Conference on Carbon Capture and Sequestration, both of which took place in Pittsburgh, the issue of legislative and regulatory uncertainty was cited as crucial obstacle to investment in advanced energy technologies. In particular, tax credits for capital investments and energy production were cited as “build/ no build” factors in investment risk/benefit analyses. Given the unpredictability of the future cost of raw resources and lengthy plant build-cycle times, which range from 18 months for natural gas plants, to seven to ten years for advanced coal and nuclear plants, effective planning can be extremely risky, especially for an industry that has been historically risk averse.

In the long term, apparently unrelated global events have had unexpected consequences, both good and bad, for the global energy industry. NETL’s Parise recalls a time during the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s, when the synthetic liquid fuels plant he ran in South Park affected world oil prices. “OPEC was watching us very closely,” he recalled. “As we were improving on what the Germans had done, reducing the cost of coal liquefaction, we were actually creating a cap that OPEC knew it couldn't go beyond. As we got closer they would back down.”

University of Pittsburgh Professor and former Westinghouse Nuclear Systems executive, Larry Foulke cites the U.S. / Russia nuclear disarmament agreement as the cause for depressed nuclear fuel prices at the same time it vitiated the domestic nuclear fuel reprocessing industry over the past decade. “We're taking nuclear weapons and turning them into fuel for nuclear power plants so there's no incentive to reprocess spent nuclear fuel,” he said.

NETL’s Sarkus points to low natural gas prices for the past 10 years as a disincentive to power plant investment. Summing up the current state of affairs, Sarkus says, “Most of the experts agree that we're looking at a big buildup of either coal or nuclear sometime in the future.”

On the nuclear side of the street, Professor Foulke contends, “Nuclear power will be part of the solution to the world's energy needs. The world needs all of the low-carbon-emitting electrical generation that it can get. I believe that nuclear energy simply has too many things going for it. It's safe. Nobody has ever been killed in the U.S. because of an accident. It's affordable. It gives us energy security. It can give us the energy to power our plug-in hybrid cars. And it will go a long way to reducing the amount of oil we use. Today, over 30 nuclear plants are being built throughout the world. None of them in the United States. I am certain that this country will start building nuclear power plants again.”

On the fossil side of the street, NETL’s Sarkus is Director of FutureGen a state-of-the-art project designed to use coal, to generate virtually emission-free electrical energy. The system will gasify coal, extract the carbon dioxide and pump it underground into a stable geologic storage site. The plant's combined cycle system employs both a conventional jet turbine that burns the coal-derived gas, and a tandem steam turbine driven by the recovered heat from the jet turbine. Site selection for the project is underway now. Completion of the preliminary design is scheduled for year-end 2007 with plans for startup fourth quarter 2012.

Fire from Ice

At the far reaches of energy technology development, Dr. Charles Taylor, Director of NETL’s Chemistry and Surface Science Division is investigating an entirely new and amazingly abundant source of natural energy called methane hydrate, a form of ice (see inset picture) with methane molecules trapped inside its molecular crystal cages. Methane hydrate occurs beneath the permafrost in Arctic regions and off the Atlantic, Pacific Northwest and Gulf seaboards as well as elsewhere in the world. With initial reserve estimates of 150 quadrillion cubic feet of methane hydrate in the United States, Taylor states, “In the United States alone, if we recover one percent of the methane hydrate we think is out there, we would have 2,000 trillion cu/ft of natural gas reserves.”

A complete roster of players in Pittsburgh’s growing energy technology landscape would be too long to include here, except to say that development efforts in nuclear, solar, coal, oil, gas, hydroelectric, wind, biomass, fuel cells, corn and cellulosic ethanol, geothermal, methane hydrate and conservation are underway at every level of government, academia, industry and commerce in the Pittsburgh region. Between Pittsburgh's legacy of natural energy resources; its epic successful battle with the dark side of energy consumption; the efforts of energy thought-leaders at NETL, Pitt, CMU and WVU, and an $850 million energy independence program underway in Harrisburg, it appears that Pittsburgh has become a global center of energy technology development.

By all indications, Mother Nature has had it that way from the start.

This story first appeared as a TEQ cover story. You can read it on the Pittsburgh Technology Council's website.

©Copyright 2007 Thomas P. Imerito/ dba Science Communications

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©2009 Science Communications