August 27, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

To clean coal, start-up GreatPoint makes gas

A group of environmentally oriented entrepreneurs has landed in an unlikely spot: the coal business.

Their company, GreatPoint Energy, is commercializing a technology to convert coal to natural gas--turning one of the dirtiest fuels into one of the cleanest.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based start-up is in the process of raising a large round of funding to finance its expansion, which will include construction of a demonstration plant next year, company executives told CNET

It has already raised two rounds of funding totaling $37 million from venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Like many recently formed clean tech companies, GreatPoint Energy is resurrecting a technology--in this case so-called catalytic gasification--that was never fully commercialized. Because of today's higher energy costs and concern over global warming, executives say that process is again worth pursuing.

The company recently completed a trial in a plant in Des Plaines, Ill. It now projects that it can create natural gas cheaper than current market prices--while minimizing the environmental impact of coal.

"Coal to a lot of environmentalists is a four-letter word," said company CEO and co-founder Andrew Perlman. "Our conclusion--and again, we came to this from an environmental perspective--is that coal is not going away. In fact, it's growing like crazy."

China and India are rapidly constructing coal-fired power plants to meet soaring energy demands. Coal is the fuel for more than half of the electricity production in the United States because it's abundant and relatively inexpensive.

Perlman, a high-tech entrepreneur, formed GreatPoint Energy with Aaron Mandell and childhood friend Avi Goldberg with the desire to break into the clean energy field. He assembled a team of engineers who originally worked on catalytic gasification in the late 1970s and 1980s to establish the company's core technology.

The company, having done its initial tests, says it can produce natural gas at about $4 per million BTUs (British thermal units), lower than the current market price of nearly $7 per million BTUs. The company calls its product "bluegas" and intends to brand it as a cleaner alternative.

"If you take the opinion that coal is not going away and there is very little you can do to change that, you have got to come up with an economic way to make it much, much cleaner," Perlman said.

Can coal be clean?
Coal creates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as well as other pollutants mercury and sulfur when burned. Per unit of energy, it is the most polluting fossil fuel and accounts for about one-third of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States (petroleum produces more carbon dioxide because more is burned), according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

Worldwide, emissions of carbon dioxide from burning coal were 10.5 billion metric tons in 2004--nearly double the amount from natural gas, according to the USEIA, which forecasts a steady increase in coal consumption in the coming decades.

In general, environmentalists oppose construction of new coal-fired power plants in favor of renewable energies or gas-fired plants, which burn cleaner. Even so-called clean coal technologies, which seek to reduce pollutants or to sequester carbon dioxide underground during power generation, are controversial.

GreatPoint Energy's technology uses gasification, the process of applying heat and pressure in a reactor tank. That technique is used by other clean coal approaches now being tried. But unlike other efforts, GreatPoint uses a catalyst that aids in the creation of methane, or natural gas.

"Most other gasification processes create gas that may contain little methane. (With GreatPoint's process), you already start with a significant amount."
--Tan-Ping Chen, senior vice president, Nexant

The company won't talk in detail about its catalyst or how it's used to treat coal, except to say that it's made of an earth metal and that it comes from the minerals industry.

The effect of using the catalyst is that a gasification process that typically takes four steps is reduced to one which lowers the cost of building and operating a plant, said GreatPoint Chief Financial Officer Daniel Goldman, who co-founded the advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs. The process is 65 percent efficient in converting coal to gas and the methane produced is 99.5 percent pure, the company says.

Energy consulting firm Nexant performed a feasibility study on behalf of GreatPoint to determine if its technology can produce gas cost-effectively. One of the primary advantages of doing catalyst-based gasification is that it can operate at lower temperatures, which makes it cheaper than other alternatives, and it produces more methane, said Tan-Ping Chen, senior vice president of energy technology at Nexant.

Chen said that GreatPoint Energy's technology is indeed different from other coal gasification processes and that it does work. The estimated cost of producing natural gas from coal hinges on a few assumptions, notably the ability to recover the catalyst after the gasification process, he added.

Gasification "is a very clean way to clean coal. That's universal and not unique (to GreatPoint Energy)," he said. "Most other gasification processes create gas that may contain little methane. (With GreatPoint's process), you already start with a significant amount."

CONTINUED: Better than hydrogen?…
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CO2 must be stored.
One advantage of these types of power generating plant is that they are a point source emission. If they can effciently bottle up or bury the carbon dioxide, then it would be very environmentally friendly. If they just let the Carbon dioxide escape, then there is nothing that has changed very much, even if the other claims are 100% true.
Posted by Joe Real (1217 comments )
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effect of storing CO2 underground
It is possible that mass storage of CO2 underground, basically pumping it into the space between the 'dirt' displacing the 'normal air' that is down there may have some effect on something? Perhaps there are microbes down there that have some part on the natural balance of life that may be killed if CO2 levels get too high?
Posted by k2dave (213 comments )
Link Flag
We are fighting this in Kalama WA
Sequestration is a MYTH made up by these folks to sell people on the idea of "clean" coal. Behind the best of their ideas lays a procurement system that involves blowing up mountains to secure coal, and destroying the environment there, including the underground movement of much needed water so you can't drill a well. Also there is the fact that the coal, once mined, must be loaded and transported, involving the burning of petroleum or diesel fuel to haul it to the burner. Altogether we get yet ANOTHER LIE when industry giants who OWN OUR GOVERNMENT get their forced permits because our government NOW MAKES THE PERMIT DECISIONS FROM WASHINGTON D.C. AND THE LOCALS CAN'T RESCIND OR BLOCK THE PERMITS in the name of "homeland security". They are actually siting mines at national parks like Yellowstone.

The energy expended to bring the energy to the light switch at homes and businesses is NOT cost effective at all. In fact it is NINTEENTH CENTURY TECHNOLOGY, dressed up and sold to the American people like SNAKE OIL.

What the world needs is intelligent engineering from folks like the guys at CNET who can develop products that work on 1/100th of the required electricity to run; thereby requiring less to provide... as in the idea of lighting homes with LEDs... etc. It's time for these products and it's far past time for Tesela's lighting process to come forward. Of course the guys on Wall Street will kick and scream because they won't get their dividend checks anymore when the energy needs of the nation drop.

Is it possible we have the wrong model operating in that PROFIT is the GOD of the nation instead of SURVIVAL? Or HEALTH/QUALITY OF LIFE?

I think the time to rethink this model has come because soon the earth will belch us up in a mighty upheaval that will utterly destroy all that we have built if we don't. We really don't have a choice. Adapt or die.
Posted by Blulady (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Be realistic
Money don't grow on trees and energy don't come without some
sort of tradeoff. It's a fact that coal is plentiful and cheap in the
US and in China (among other places.) We're all using more
energy with the ever increasing dependence on computers,
PDAs, cell phones, big screen TVs and even electric cars. We all
know the costs and politics of oil (no offshore drilling, impact on
environment of drilling and pipelines, dependence on foreign oil,
etc.) Nuclear power? Yes, its cheap and many European countries
are energy independent thanks to nuclear. But what to do with
the spent fuel? Hydroelectric. Environmental impacts - diverting
of waterways, effect on fish and wildlife. Don't poo poo this coal
to gas plant without examining the cost/benefits.
Posted by canettijazz (44 comments )
Link Flag
perpetual motion. No CO2, no polutatnts. No wait - there is gravity and friction. Oh well YOU CAN ALWAYS DREAM.
Posted by gggg sssss (2285 comments )
Link Flag
This is why I was happy to leave WA
Way to many foaming at the mouth, wacko tree huggers up there...
Posted by hounddoglgs (74 comments )
Link Flag
No really, it does.

Also, if you are that concerned about people using energy turn off
your computer. In fact, you shouldn't veen have one. Do you know
how much in the way of resources were wasted and polluting waste
was generated to build that thing?
Posted by rapier1 (2722 comments )
Link Flag
We can get off coal!
There is a smart way to end our dependence on coal. It is nuclear power. Nuclear power is efficient and proven. The only hurdle to more nuclear power plants is the same eco-nuts who are protesting coal power plants.

The eco-nuts want inefficient and expensive solar power plants and wind farms. All of these are great to have, but they are not the answer to our energy needs.

The only sensible answer to pollution and energy needs is nuclear power. Yes, there is the nuclear waste. But these can be safely stored away underground. The US has plenty of uranium, we don't need to dig for uranium for a long time. One kilogram of uranium equals 1500 tons of coal.

But, of course, an eco-nut is probably going to reply to my message and tell me how unsafe nuclear power is, even though there has been a grand total of 0 deaths to nuclear power accidents, including the famous three mile island incident.
Posted by i_am_still_wade (250 comments )
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Nuclear power deserves a lot more research than it's gotten over the last 20 years. While I think current nuclear power *is* both risky and highly polluting (mostly in terms of how long the pollution lasts), it's possible to design a Generation IV reactor, fast breeder reactor, and/or a pebble-bed reactor that is both difficult to melt down and uses substantially more of the radioactive fuel (such that the waste is only radioactive for decades or at most centuries, instead of millenia, and the fuel lasts substantially longer). I think the problem with nuclear power is that the environmentalists of the 60's, 70's and 80's were too keen on shutting them down instead of fixing their problems and pushing forward.

With current-generation reactors, a lot of the fuel goes to waste, and the supply of Uranium on the planet wouldn't last as long as the coal.
Posted by samkass (310 comments )
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You'll missing the global reality
Coal is still relatively plentiful globally with China, Russia, and US having most reserves. It is unrealistic to think that China and Russia (and others) will stop coal processing (it is still a big source of local jobs and foreign capital as export of coaking coal bring in lots of money from stellmakers). Additionally, it's still the cheapest fuel for local consumption. If you realize that the pollution from coal uses in foreign countries will far outpace the gains in pollution control in the US then you realize that promotion of pollution control technologies for coal will have far greater benefits than building nuclear plant. I am not arguing against building nuclear plants, just that you're missing the global reality of coal.
Posted by oxtail01 (308 comments )
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I am not an eco nut
But I believe that we should not make waste on someone else's plate.

You are the nut. You are a nasty selfish name calling dolt.
Posted by Blulady (6 comments )
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Is Nuclear the answer?
Well the households in our area which are supplied by solar for their energy needs would probably say no.

The owners of these systems are definitely not eco-nuts.

The limitations of these solar electrical systems are of course well known, however, if your budget allows, they will supply enough energy to run a houseful of consumer goods.

We in Australia have plenty of uranium as well, but also a lot of sunshine. Why would we consider Nuclear as the only option?

I have no doubt that solar electrical systems are a viable option, they do work, I've seen them powering households.

As for Blulady, solar power your own house and save the rest of us the rhetoric. If you want to start a revolution - revolutionize yourself (quietly if possible).

Getting off coal would be a good move, going nuclear as a blanket solution isn't.

Posted by m.o.t.u. (96 comments )
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The key to how clean this really is
This one line from the article is the key to determining how 'clean' this plant really is:

"It also expects to capture pollutants, including mercury and sulfur, and sell them to chemical companies."

The reason why coal is so 'dirty' has absolutely nothing to do with carbon dioxide (which is none-toxic and not a pollutant). The estimated hundreds of thousands of premature deaths worldwide EVERY YEAR that can be attributed to coal power plants is caused by the air pollution they spew, things like oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, particulate matter and the heavy metals contained within coal.

The trick to making coal less dirty (it'll never be "clean") is what you do with all the excess crap in it. Traditional coal plants just spew them out their flue gas stacks, hopefully trapping some with scrubbers (only ~1/3rd of coal plants have those though) or they fall out as ash which tends to just get dumped. With these less-dirty-coal plants the pollutants typically end up being mainly extracted with water, so then it becomes a question of what to do with the waste water from the process. If the plant just discharges their effluent into the local stream then we're no better off (and maybe worse off) then we are burning the coal. On the other hand, if they are able to remove the vast majority of pollutants from the waste water stream and either dispose of them safely or even sell them as by-products then this process could be a big improvement.

The long story short though is that the gasification is only one piece of the puzzle in making coal less dirty. And that's without even counting the pollution involved in mining the stuff in the first place!
Posted by Hoser McMoose (182 comments )
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Here is another very good article
From the Seattle Times we get some more information about the politics of ramming a coal gassification plant down your throat.

Remember this: The oxygen that flows across the continent comes over the Pacific Northwest. If the trees in these mountains can not scrub the pollutants out of the air from China and add the oxygen required to keep all the red necks in the center of the continent alive; we all die.

So goes the future.

We all need air to breathe.

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Posted by Blulady (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wow, some basic principles of air movement was sorely lacking in this post. First, it depends on the part of the country you live in on where the majority of your weather patterns and airflow come from. In my state, 70% of the weather patterns originate in Canada, with the rest coming from the west, and from the south. Second, the majority of oxygen on the planet originate from the rainforests in S America and Africa. Each continent does its part overall, but that's where the majority comes from.

As for scrubbing, I'd be more worried about your fellas on the east side of Washington than someone in the Central US. Particulate matter doesn't usually travel a whole long ways (my state'll get contributions from Chicago and Milwakee, and we in turn send ours to Ontario). Second, unless your trees are about 25,000 feet tall, they won't have much effect on reducing particulate matter from China, as you claim they will.

check the facts before stating outrageous claims.
Posted by crazynexus (67 comments )
Link Flag
So quick to cry foul about name calling, but its ok to refer to everyone in the central US as rednecks? You not only ARE a rabid EcoNut, but a hypocrite as well. Go chain yourself to a tree or something, so the rest of the world doesn't have to listen to your ranting. And you wonder why no one takes your kind seriously.
Posted by hounddoglgs (74 comments )
Link Flag
Rednecks come from the south - not the midwest of plain
states. If you are going to insult people you should at least get
your derogatories right.

By the way, insulting people is generally not a good way of
convincing them of the merit of your argument. How much
creedence would lend to someone who called you a crystal
sucking hippie dingbat? Hurm?

Not a lot I'm guessing. So why is it alright for you to call
someone - just on the basis of where they live - a redneck with
all the negative connotations that implies? Sounds like base
prejudice to me. Try to practice some tolerance for divergent
viewpoints in the future.
Posted by rapier1 (2722 comments )
Link Flag
Nuclear Power - Waste is a myth
Japan reprocesses most waste from their many nuclear plants -- they even accept a limited amount of our waste that we are foolish enough to ship to them for reprocessing.

Nuclear waste is a proven technology that is prohibited in the United States by Presidential directive - makes as much sense as prohibiting the reprocessing of aluminum cans. After completing the fuel cycle, the power plant fuel has nearly (could be more than 100% if designed right) as much usable fuel in another form as it had when enriched from the mines. We don't reprocess it for several political reasons - mainly to preserve the power monopoly of the oil and coal companies.

There are no real new environmental issues. Build plants in groups of four - one reprocessing plant takes about 4 nuclear power plants to feed it. Generate electricity, reprocess the fuel, add some new fuel if needed, and generate more electricity.

Only thing that leaves the plant is power, hot waste water for cooling the reactors and generators, and some low level waste that can be easily stored since it is safe in a much shorter time.

Even the cleanest coal plant takes heavy metals and other pollutants that are now buried (think of it as natures long term underground storage) and introduces them back into the biosphere. Oil plants are worse in a way, besides killing miners and poisoning our air, every oil plant in a small way funds terrorism.

Finally, there are the thousands of left over bombs from the cold war. Think they just want away? Wrong they are stored, above ground, in hope they are never needed and will go away in only 10,000 years. Start our national reprocessing program by reprocessing the no-longer-needed bombs into usable fuel for modern reactors. We can make all the electricity the US needs for about 3-5 years by beating our swords into plowshares.

The technology is here - sure the nuclear problems have safety concerns - but as of today, many more people have been killed by coal and oil pollution, production accidents, and wars than all the nuclear accidents combined. The oil and coal killing will continue without reduction - nuclear killing is mostly theoretical - properly run and properly recycled, France has still suffered some minimum number of construction accidents - after all, we are talking about big plants - but they have not had a nuclear life loss -- while we have had 3500 young brave soldiers lost in Iraq protecting our oil imports.

Thank you for reading this far. /Stu
Posted by stuartbell (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I Never Knew That
Excellent post, Stu. I consider myself fairly well informed and yet, have never heard of nuclear fuel reprocessing. I'll have to look into this further.

Thanks for the calm approach, too. I grow weary of those who can't post an opinion without belittling dissenters.

And thanks for remembering the 3500. They seem to be more of a footnote now than precious lives lost.

Good job, Stu! I look forward to more of your writing.
Posted by drdoolittle2800 (17 comments )
Link Flag
in teh ground
and when you are finally doen with it, put it back into the ground where it came from.
Posted by gggg sssss (2285 comments )
Link Flag
Sounds good but...
Isn't this a regurgitation and re-labeling of "coal gas" technology that pre-dated "water gas" and "natural gas" as a household lighting solution in the late 1800's ?
Posted by jjaser (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Read about Nuclear Waste
Wade's note is surely correct - except for nuclear waste. Most of the material left in reactor fuel rods after producing power can be reprocessed again and again into more fuel rods - except that it is prohibited by presidential directive in the US.

France does it - and reprocesses some of ours in the process. Prohibiting reprocessing of nuclear fuel makes as much sense as prohibiting reprocessing of aluminum cans - maybe less since aluminum waste is fairly harmless.
Posted by stuartbell (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Clean coal is the name attributed to coal chemically washed of minerals and impurities, sometimes gasified, burned and the resulting flue gases treated with
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
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Posted by texty32 (3 comments )
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