LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — University of Kentucky researchers landed a $3 million federal grant on Monday to work on developing technology to sharply reduce the costs generated by preventing carbon pollution from spewing into the air from coal-burning power plants.
UK researchers hope their work eventually yields commercial applications that boost coal-based electricity — benefiting miners, utility companies and ratepayers.
The grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will help back a project at UK's Center for Applied Energy Research to promote cleaner emissions from power plants. It comes at a time when the eastern Kentucky coalfields are struggling from continued weak coal markets.
"Obviously coal-fired power generation is facing some very big challenges," Rodney Andrews, the UK center's director, said during the event in Lexington. "These are the sorts of projects we need to be doing if we're going to continue to use coal to generate base-load power."
Kentucky is traditionally one of the nation's top coal producers. But production has been hurt by weak demand, lower natural gas prices and stricter federal regulations. The Obama administration recently announced tough requirements to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, a decision harshly criticized by Kentucky politicians.
The slowdown has forced companies to idle mines and lay off workers by the hundreds in eastern Kentucky. The region lost about 4,000 mining jobs in 2012, according to data compiled by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. James River Coal recently said it was laying off 525 full-time workers at mines in five eastern Kentucky counties.
The UK project is aimed at making technology available that can capture the heat-trapping pollution at a much lower cost to utilities.
UK researchers are working on a process that would require the use of much smaller scrubbers to produce cleaner emissions at coal-burning power plants. The scrubbers amount to a major cost to the process of capturing and storing carbon from power plants.
"This would be a big step forward in improving the efficiency of that system," Andrews said in a phone interview.
In the carbon-capture process, flue gas passes through scrubbers, where a solvent absorbs carbon. The UK center has developed a catalyst to speed the absorption rate of the solvent, so the scrubber can be much smaller. That technology could reduce the cost of carbon capture by 56 percent, compared to DOE's current reference case, UK officials said.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the research has potential.
"These funds will hopefully move carbon-capture technology from the laboratory to reality," he said by phone. "Private and public funding related to the use of coal is always good news. But we remain concerned that federal regulators continue to use what exists in the laboratory and not in the real world" to put restrictions on coal-fired plants.
UK is contributing $242,615 to the project, and nearly $500,000 more is coming from an industry-based research consortium.