Virginia Tech is spearheading a study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop more effective and environmentally friendly coal-processing techniques.
The DOE granted $8.8 million to Tech and six other colleges ? West Virginia University, University of Kentucky, Montana Tech, the University of Nevada, New Mexico Tech and the University of Utah ? to establish the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies.
The primary goal of CAST is to develop technologies that separate the valuable material from coal and other minerals more efficiently, and without discarding waste into the environment.
One of the most important targets of this separation technology will be fine coal, or mined coal particles which are too small to be cleaned efficiently.
Without adequate methods of cleaning fine coal, companies must often dispose of it by sending it to one of 713 active impoundment sites, most of which are located in Central Appalachia.
The impoundments can create environmental hazards.
On Oct. 11, 2000, near Inez, Ky., a 72 acre coal waste impoundment accidentally released 250 million gallons of coal slurry into nearby underground mines, creeks, rivers and schoolyards, according to a statement issued by Congressman Rick Boucher.
The National Research council reported that the U.S. coal industry annually discards 70 to 90 million tons of fine coal annually, the statement said.
Separating one component from another is very important in mining, said Roe-Hoan Yoon, professor of mining and minerals engineering.
?When you mine ore, coal or minerals, they must be upgraded before they can be marketed,? he said. ?This means you must separate the valuable minerals from the waste minerals. That is where the separation technologies come in.?
The way coal is processed today creates waste, such as fine coal, which is exposed to the public and can cause environmental problems, Yoon said.
?Coal is the major energy source in this country and we want to use coal in an environmentally acceptable manner,? Yoon said.
The U.S. produces approximately 1 billion tons of coal annually, 90 percent of which is burned at power plants to produce 52 percent of the nation?s electricity, according to the statement.
?The funding (provided by the DOE) will be used for cleaning coal more efficiently,? Boucher said in the statement. ?In the absence of appropriate technologies, many companies are forced to discard the portion of mined coal which is too fine to be cleaned efficiently.?
Working as a team benefits all the universities and the project as a whole, Yoon said.
?Different universities have different strengths and expertise,? he said. ?If we have a major technological problem to be solved, it is easier for several universities to work together to achieve a common goal.?