UK scrubbing away pollution

To tackle the challenge of "scrubbing" copious amounts of carbon dioxide belched from coal-fired power plants, University of Kentucky researchers have turned to household cleaners.

Ammonia solutions similar to Windex will play a pivotal role in research at the crux of a 10-year, $24 million project among UK, electric utility companies and the state to develop efficient and effective ways to reduce carbon dioxide from electricity plants that use coal.

"We must solve the problem of carbon dioxide because it is affecting the long-term health of this earth," Gov. Steve Beshear said during a news conference Monday. "Those who burn coal, those who sell it, those who mine it and those who regulate it know the world is changing."

It's a major issue for Kentucky electricity producers, who rely on coal to generate more than 90 percent of the state's power. Plus, much of that coal is mined in Eastern and Western Kentucky.

So five industry groups, E.ON U.S. — the parent company of Kentucky Utilities and Louisville Gas & Electric — Duke Energy, Kentucky Power Co., East Kentucky Power Cooperative and the Electric Power Research Institute, are kicking in $200,000 a year to the research effort. The state is putting up $1 million for at least the first two years of the venture. Officials also are hoping to land federal grants.

The research itself will be conducted in UK's Center for Applied Energy Research, where scientists are building on early efforts started with $1.5 million over three years from E.ON.

"We're going to put some of our best minds working on some of the toughest problems," UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said of the energy researchers.

In the bowels of the energy research center off Iron Works Pike, giant tubes contain ammonia that can chemically sweep up carbon dioxide emitted by burning coal. The equipment is two stories high but miniature in scale compared to what a power plant would need.

Once the carbon dioxide-packed ammonia solution can't absorb any more of the gas, it is heated in a container so the carbon dioxide can separate and be extracted — much like how carbon dioxide bursts out of a soda can that's been left in a hot car, said Jim Neathery, senior research engineer of power generation and utility fuels at the UK research center.

Neathery and Kunlei Liu are heading the project.

Their research team is exploring other chemicals that could work to absorb carbon dioxide more efficiently than ammonia. The so-called "scrubbing" process has a long way to go before power plants can afford to use such a system, Neathery said.

"The big problem with that is the energy usage," he said. "As much as 30 percent of a power plant's output would go toward" the cleansing process, such as cooling down the gas emitted by the coal burning and heating up the solution to extract the carbon dioxide later.

Neathery said the goal is to fine-tune the process so it requires less than 25 percent of the electricity the plant generates.

Once the carbon dioxide is extracted it is compressed. Other UK geological researchers are working on ways to bury it thousands of feet underground and lock it among subterranean rocks.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency declared carbon dioxide a pollutant.

Kentucky ranks 13th in the nation in carbon dioxide emissions, with an output of more than 152 million metric tons, according to 2005 figures from the EPA. The electrical power-generation industry accounted for nearly 60 percent of that total.

Rodney Andrews, director of the UK energy research center, said scientists will use the consortium's funding to take current experiments to new levels with ambitious projects. Those include construction of a portable carbon dioxide cleaning system and, eventually, perfecting different methods of burning coal.

"The existing fleet of pulverized coal power plants aren't going anywhere," Andrews said. "We will continue to get power from them for at least the next 30 years."