The University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits’) Professor Rosemary Falcon has been awarded the National Research Foundation (NRF) research chair in clean coal technology. The chair entails being responsible for research in clean coal technology, which includes undertaking own research and supervising postgraduate research students as well as lecturing.
Coal in South Africa is different from that in the northern hemisphere, and coal within various parts of South Africa also differs, says Lionel Falcon. “If you use the wrong coal, it will still burn, but it will be highly inefficient,” he explains.
“This affects clean coal technology, as most of the boilers and process technologies that are imported from Europe and the US are designed to work optimally with their specific coal, which is of a much higher grade than the coal we have in South Africa,” says Rosemary Falcon.
“For this reason, we are involved in finding out what our coals are and how systems could be developed to use that coal optimally,” she says. To achieve this, exploration has to be more effective because the quality of the coal has to be understood in detail throughout the intended mining area before the mine plan is drawn up.
Before 1975, the mining industry mined out only the higher-quality coal to meet the requirements of coal users and left behind the rest. In doing so, the industry was able to match the high-quality coal required for the imported boilers, she explains.
Then, when South Africa started exporting coal in 1975, the mining industry mined entire seams, higher and lower quality, after which it started beneficiating, with the high-grade products destined for export and the remaining lower grades, known as middlings and discard, left for local use. However, the best areas were mined and the worst areas were left unexploited.
This resulted in South Africa currently having mostly low-grade coal, says Rosemary Falcon, adding that it is extremely difficult to take a poor-grade coal and make it useful and efficient in an industrial boiler or power station boiler that was designed to process a better-quality coal.
“In addition, government is soon to [intro- duce] much higher environmental legislation; however, it will be difficult to lower our emissions to European levels, as our coal is of a lower grade than that of Europe,” she explains.
South Africa has the highest dependence on coal, with about 93% of the country’s energy coming from coal.
“If one would attempt to provide electricity for the entire country without using coal, it would be difficult. It could potentially be done, but not for many years to come,” says Rosemary Falcon.
This is why clean coal technology is important. It allows the country to use coal wisely and effectively for as long as possible, she adds.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s dependence on coal makes it important for the country to reduce the environmental impact of using coal.