September 07, 2007

Discussions to explore evolving energy technologies

by Tim Crosby


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois' history is steeped in the lore of coal and coal mining. Though it's boom and bust, the buried black treasure has remained synonymous with the region, which holds some of country's richest deposits.

New technology, some of it developed at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is making the area's resources rich in value once again. University officials want to bring the public up to speed on the advances in coal gasification during the first in a series of roundtables throughout the area set to kick off this fall.

The energy discussion series is for lay people, elected leaders, educators and business people who want to deepen their understanding of evolving energy technologies. Connect SI, a regional economic development initiative, and the SIUC Coal Research Center organized the series, with the Citizens Utility Board sponsoring the first program.

The programs will help this cross-section of Southern Illinois leaders learn important details about terms such as "gasification" and "FutureGen," that are so often part of news reports on economic development, but short on background.

"We envision a very interactive event," said John S. Mead, director of the Coal Research Center and associate dean of the SIUC graduate school.

"This is going to be a layman's discussion," added Rex Duncan, the University's liaison to Connect SI. "It will be a primer of sorts for people in the area who want to understand more about where the technology is going."

The first symposium, titled "The Promise of Coal Gasification," is set for the evening of Sept. 18 at John A. Logan College in Carterville. The event, featuring speakers and a panel discussion, starts at 5:30 p.m. with a reception. Organizers encourage pre-registration, as seating for the event is limited to 150.

The event will feature Bill Hoback, chief of the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's Office of Coal Development, who will address the challenges of clean coal. A panel discussion moderated by Mead and featuring key players in industry, research institutions and state agencies, including the Citizen's Utility Board, will follow. An open discussion with questions and answers will close the program.

Future programs on the future of coal mining, biofuels and energy sustainability will follow during the ensuing months, with the series slated to wrap up in spring.

Coal gasification is the process of using chemistry to turn solid coal into synthetic gas that is converted into electricity, fuels and chemicals. It is a potentially cleaner, more efficient means of generating power.

Mead said while many people likely have heard the term, they may not understand the processes involved, nor the potential impacts on their lives that it might have in years to come.

"We want to talk about the environmental and economic issues involved here, the potential of carbon capture and sequestration, as well other side issues like infrastructure needed to develop these technologies," Mead said.

"We're going to discuss what coal gasification is, how it works and what it could mean for the area," Duncan said. "We also want to generate discussion on how we, as a region, can work together to advocate for coal gasification."

The proposed FutureGen power plant is a prominent example of coal gasification's potential. FutureGen would greatly reduce pollution by utilizing gasification and emission-capture techniques that pump the carbon dioxide into underground storage areas instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. It also will create hydrogen for use in a variety of applications while supplying enough electricity to power about 150,000 homes.

The central Illinois communities of Tuscola and Mattoon are vying with two Texas communities for the nation's first prototype FutureGen plant. The project could be worth billions to the economy if proven, and may set off an entirely new wave of power plant construction.

"People hear so much about these technologies," Mead said. "This is an opportunity to learn and discuss and talk to the people directly involved with them."