Research into zero emission and alternative uses of coal

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US President Joe Biden has put billions of dollars into research on ways to use coal to make products without burning the coal and thus not creating greenhouse gas emissions, according to a senior Latrobe Valley figure.

The chief executive of Australian Carbon Innovation at Federation University, Brian Davey, said a US conference that he recently attended was told that $US 13.4 billion was available in President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act for ‘coal to other products’.

The IRA climate legislation, passed last year, has more than $A500 billion worth of programs and funding to accelerate the transition to net zero in the US.

Mr Davey said US researchers were mainly using the IRA funding for projects in carbon fibre, rare earth minerals, CO2 capture and utilisation, graphites and graphenes.

“The things they are doing is what we would like to do in many respects,” he said.

Graphite, a crystalline form of carbon, is used in pencils, lubricants, polishes, arch lamps and batteries. Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms tightly bound in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice, is tough, flexible, light and with high resistance, with applications in energy, construction, health and electronics.

Mr Davey said the latest flavour of month was rare earth minerals that can be extracted from coal.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have these minerals in our lignite, but in everything else they were doing, there was almost a parallel evolution with what we are trying to do in Australia,” he told the Express.

The Americans were also interested in ‘activator carbons’, “a medium to clean up pollution – water and chemical clean-ups, oil spills”. Activated carbon is used to purify liquids and gases in a variety of applications, including municipal drinking water, food and beverage processing, odour removal and industrial pollution control.

“What it can also do is signal potential for carbon capture out of that process.”

Mr Davey said the US would pay up to $US180 per tonne for carbon capture.

“In Australia, we get not a cent. If you had a subsidy for capture of CO2 in Australia, I suspect the HESC (Japanese coal-to-hydrogen) project would probably be building a commercial project now,” he said.

“In terms of research funding lignite at the federal and state level, it is zero. There was nothing in the last state budget. We may get some support for our operational costs. That is still not finalised; I’m reasonably confident that will happen, but there is no point in having operational funding if you can’t do any research.”

Mr Davey said the US conference delegates found it difficult to understand that Victoria has this huge resource (brown coal), which is much bigger than their resource.

“They have a different coal, sub-bituminous coal,” he said – a lower grade of coal whose properties are between those of lignite and bituminous coal, the second-highest grade of coal.

The Latrobe Valley’s brown coal was more complex than the US coal.

“There is a variety of things we can do that they can’t do. They could not understand how we would not be utilising this resource in Australia,” he said.

Mr Davey said the conference participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds, Democrats and Republicans.

“They could not get their heads around it – how much coal we have and why we would not use that coal. It seems like a natural advantage the state has,” he said.

“There appears to be huge opportunities in this space if we are prepared to grasp this opportunity. The word ‘coal’ has no nuance. You have to be ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘negative’. There are huge opportunities in the agricultural space for us – bioremediation, soil amendments, improvements. The resource has the capacity to do lots of things.”