fossil fuel technologies
The most commonly used fossil fuels for power generation around the world are coal and gas. Oil is still used where other fuels are not readily available, for example islands or remote sites, or where there is an indigenous resource. Together, coal and gas currently account for over half of global electricity supply.
coal combustion technologies In a conventional coal-fired power station, pulverised or powdered coal is blown into a combustion chamber where it is burned at high temperature. The resulting heat is used to convert water flowing through pipes lining the boiler into steam. This drives a steam turbine and generates electricity. Over 90% of global coal-fired capacity uses this system. Coal power stations can vary in capacity from a few hundred megawatts up to several thousand.
A number of technologies have been introduced to improve the environmental performance of conventional coal combustion. These include coal cleaning (to reduce the ash content) and various ‘bolton’ or ‘end-of-pipe’ technologies to reduce emissions of particulates, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, the main pollutants resulting from coal firing apart from carbon dioxide. Flue gas desulphurisation (FGD), for example, most commonly involves ‘scrubbing’ the flue gases using an alkaline sorbent slurry, which is predominantly lime or limestone based.
More fundamental changes have been made to the way coal is burned to both improve its efficiency and further reduce emissions of pollutants. These include:
- integrated gasification combined cycle: Coal is not burned directly but reacted with oxygen and steam to form a synthetic gas composed mainly of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This is cleaned and then burned in a gas turbine to generate electricity and produce steam to drive a steam turbine. IGCC improves the efficiency of coal combustion from 38-40% up to 50%.
- supercritical and ultrasupercritical: These power plants operate at higher temperatures than conventional combustion, again increasing efficiency towards 50%.
- fluidised bed combustion: Coal is burned in a reactor comprised of a bed through which gas is fed to keep the fuel in a turbulent state. This improves combustion, heat transfer and the recovery of waste products. By elevating pressures within a bed, a high-pressure gas stream can be used to drive a gas turbine, generating electricity. Emissions of both sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide can be reduced substantially.
- pressurised pulverised coal combustion: Mainly being developed in Germany, this is based on the combustion of a finely ground cloud of coal particles creating high pressure, high temperature steam for power generation. The hot flue gases are used to generate electricity in a similar way to the combined cycle system.
Read more in Chapter 9 of the energy [r]evolution report.