Supercomputing for Cleaner Coal

By Tiffany Trader

November 19, 2013

In 2012, coal was used for about 37 percent of the 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced in the United States, making it the most common fuel for generating electricity in the nation. When coal, a fossil fuel, is burned, it emits pollution in the form of smog, acid rain, and greenhouse gases. Coal plants are the number one source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the US, the primary cause of global warming.

Despite these negatives, the economics and demand for energy are such that coal will likely be part of our nation’s energy roadmap for some time to come. Given this market reality, many industry and government stakeholders are focusing their efforts on reducing coal’s environmental impact using carbon capture and storage technologies.

Cutaway of a supercomputer simulation shows coal combustion inside a proposed carbon-capturing power plant designed for lower costs and emissions.
Cutaway of a supercomputer simulation shows coal combustion inside a proposed carbon-capturing power plant designed for lower costs and emissions.

Last month, University of Utah officials announced plans for a Carbon Capture Multidisciplinary Simulation Center to simulate and test a low-cost, low-emissions prototype coal plant capable of powering a mid-sized city.

Funding for the five-year project comes from a $16 million grant provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The center is being headed up by University of Utah researchers Philip J. Smith and Martin Berzins, along with university President David W. Pershing. All three are professors in the university’s College of Engineering.

According to the University of Utah news release, “the goal of this ‘predictive science’ effort is to help power poor nations while reducing greenhouse emissions in developed ones.”

The researchers will use massive DOE supercomputers to simulate and predict the performance of a proposed 350-megawatt boiler system, designed by international power giant Alstom. The boiler employs a technology called oxy-combustion, which ignites pulverized coal using pure oxygen instead of air. The process leaves behind water vapor and pure carbon dioxide, which is easier to capture and store. The computer modeling will enable researchers to optimize the design and address any uncertainties that arise.

Project backers are preparing to run these large-scale simulations on multi-petascale and eventually exascale machines. As researcher Martin Berzins notes, “These simulations and others like them will make use of computers that are expected to be able to perform 1 million-trillion operations per second in the next decade or so, or as many operations per second as a billion personal computers today.”

The University of Utah is no stranger to coal research. The university’s participation in combustion research extends back to the 1950s. That tradition grew into the the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy (ICSE), which was officially recognized by the school as a permanent institute in 2004. ICSE is dedicated to interdisciplinary research on high-temperature fuel utilization processes for energy generation and related issues. The institute’s approach combines hands-on experimental work with analytical tools and simulation.

A related program, The University of Utah’s Clean and Secure Energy (CASE) from Coal, is working to advance carbon capture and storage technologies, while at the same time addressing the associated legal, environmental, economic and policy concerns.

To be fair, while some see carbon capture as a solution for mitigating climate change and providing energy security, many environmental groups question the feasibility of “clean coal.”

In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Matt Pacenza, policy director at HEAL Utah, stated, “We’ve been hearing about the myth of clean coal for quite a few years now. The truth is as those technologies have moved forward they’ve either contributed to a rise in the levels of pollution or they’ve turned out to be wildly expensive. Maybe this is the one that’s actually clean and affordable and transformative, but I think everyone should be skeptical.”

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