Fuel Cell Taps Mining Waste Methane

While the overall process still involves extraction of one the most noxious fossil fuels, the world’s first fuel cell power plant to operate on coalmine methane gas has begun operation at a coal mine in Hopedale, Ohio, reducing methane’s harmful effects on the atmosphere.

Hopedale, Ohio – October 24, 2003 [SolarAccees.com] The purpose of the project, which is co-funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory, is to demonstrate the feasibility and advantages of methane from coalmines to generate electricity cleanly and efficiently. The fuel cell is a 200-kW Direct Fuel Cell unit from Connecticut-based Fuel Cell Energy. Hans Maru, the company’s chief technology officer remarked on the potential that this demonstration represents. “This project is very exciting for a number of reasons,” Maru said. “First, by using coalmine methane to power our DFC power plants, we’re generating electricity cleanly and efficiently from a readily available domestic fuel source. Second, we’re helping to eliminate escaping methane, which is a harmful greenhouse gas. Third, we are demonstrating the economics of using coalmine methane as an opportunity fuel to generate electricity in a clean power source such as our DFC power plants.” While methane enters the atmosphere in much smaller quantities than carbon dioxide (CO2), it is an average of twenty times worse for the ozone layer than CO2. “It (this demonstration project) is innovation of a high order,” said DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, Carl Michael Smith. “It recovers the methane gas that is a hazard in coal mining and a strong agent of possible climate change and turns it into a useful energy resource. In this way it expands our Nation’s inventory of useable energy reserves, supports miner safety and contributes to the President’s Clear Skies, Climate and National Energy Policy initiatives. Once proved and deployed on a wide scale this new technology could make marked contributions in each area.” According to Fuel Cell Energy, methane from coal seams is vented in the course of mining operations to reduce hazards to mining. Some abandoned mines also emit methane to the atmosphere, which is the case at the Rose Valley Site. In the United States alone, coalmine methane emissions to the atmosphere are estimated in excess of 500 million cubic feet per day, said the company. Various methods of recovering and managing coalmine methane have been employed at mines for many years. However, as concern over the impact of greenhouse gas emissions has increased, so have efforts to find ways to recover and use coalmine methane. Because methane traps heat 20 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, U.S. mine methane emissions are equivalent to exhaust from a dozen 500-MW coal-fired power plants or taking approximately 17 million cars off the road. FuelCell Energy estimates that as of 1999, 75 percent of the world’s coalmine methane emissions from active and abandoned coalmines come from the top six countries with coal mining operations. A total of approximately 1,000 MW of fuel cell power could be generated using coalmine methane from active and abandoned mines. The United States alone has approximately 300 MW of unutilized coalmine methane capacity. At an estimated US$1,000 per kW, the 1,000 MW worldwide potential for FuelCell Energy’s DFC power plants is equivalent to a US$1 billion market, said the company. The coal plant is owned by AEP Ohio Coal, operated by Northeast Fuel Development, is located at a site roughly 60 miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The power plant uses approximately 55,000 to 80,000 cubic feet per day of a coalmine methane gas containing 42 to 47 percent methane. American Electric Power (AEP) is purchasing the electricity generated at the site under a power purchase agreement between Northwest Fuel Development and AEP.
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