Is it possible to burn coal without putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Coal accounts for almost half the electricity generated in the U.S. and up to 80 percent in rapidly growing countries such as China and India. Scientists have warned that carbon dioxide from coal, and other fossil fuels, is heating up the planet and changing the Earth's climate. Correspondent Dan Goldstein takes a look at a new technology for washing out the carbon before it can get into the air.
General Electric chemist Bob Perry has developed a chemical for removing carbon from coal emissions based on the same types of materials used in shampoos and conditioners. It's sprayed on the exhaust, or flue gas, absorbs the carbon dioxide and turns it into a powder. University of Texas at Austin Engineer Gary Rochelle is using a similar process on a test scale. Building a carbon capture system big enough for a real coal-fired power plant would cost about $1 billion and may double the cost to generate electricity, Rochelle says.
David Hawkins, director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council says if the nation is going to continue using fossil fuels, it has to use carbon capture. While the costs may be great, he predicts that utilities can spread them out over time. Pierre Gauthier of Alstom, whose company builds power plants in the U.S., says customers are already paying for pollution controls dealing with other environmental problems, such as acid rain, without complaint. One day the same will be true for carbon capture technology, Gauthier says.
Rochelle says his carbon-capture technology won't be used on a commercial scale until utilities have some financial incentive to curb carbon dioxide emissions. A cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, which was defeated in Congress last year, would provide that incentive, Rochelle says.