Mother Nature makes fossil coal over million of years with time, pressure and heat. It’s the best we’ve got right now.
Or . . . was the best.
A team of scientists are experimenting with a biofuel material which works like a substitute for coal. And, it’s renewable. What’s more, it doesn’t take eons to form underground, and is made from agricultural waste including wood and plants. That means it’s potentially a never-ending source of the material according to the team developing it at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), part of the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The material, coined ‘instant coal’ – after its manufacturing process, is made up of agricultural waste including wood and plants. The biofuel is exposed to a roasting process where raw biomass is dried and then heated up to 249°C (480°F) in a low-oxygen atmosphere, before being compressed. Technically it’s known as torrefaction.
“Maybe you like light roast coffee, it’s not as concentrated… or you can take it further and have a dark roast coffee. We can do the same thing here,” says one of the NRRI researchers, Don Fosnacht. The energy mud is made through an alternative system akin to a pressure cooker. Known as hydrothermal carbonisation, it removes the drying stage of the process.
Between the two techniques, the Renewable Energy Lab is producing between four and six tons of biofuel a day. The company is now busy looking for commercial partners to help them scale up the process of making their coal substitutes.
The BTU or British Thermal Unit is an indicator of stored energy: coal offers around 12,500 BTUs per pound, but this new biofuel is right up there with 8,000 to 9,500 BTUs per pound. A different variation, known as energy mud, can hit even higher levels
So, it’s going to be some time before this ‘instant coal’ is ready for widespread and commercial use, but think of the benefits: reduced emissions from coal-fired power plants and power steam engines; reduced reliance on mining coal for making steel and other iron products; and, no mining – the use natural waste from plants and trees are the products used for “Instant Coal”. No Muss, No Fuss.
(Oh, and as an added bonus these materials are easy to transport – they repel water and don’t rot.)