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What is Clean Coal?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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"Clean coal" is an industry term that refers to increasing the efficiency of coal mining, making power plants that use coal for energy generation more environmentally friendly, and/or making coal itself more fuel efficient and clean burning. Since coal contributes a large volume of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere every year, the idea of cleaning up coal is quite appealing to many consumers and governments. In any discussion of clean coal, it is important for people to remember that carbon dioxide is still released in the environment when coal is used for fuel, and other harmful emissions are created as well. In addition, since coal is a fossil fuel, ultimately the world's reserves may be exhausted.

Many environmentalists term the concept "greenwashing," meaning that companies are using the idea to make themselves look better rather than really providing fuel that is any cleaner. They argue that since coal is a fossil fuel, investing in cleaner technology is not as sound as investment in renewable energy. Most environmentalists would also agree that if coal is going to be used as a fuel, however, it might as well be used cleanly.

The creation of coal started millions of years ago, when decaying plant and animal matter began to compress, ultimately forming the world's coal and petroleum deposits. Coal has been used as a fuel for centuries, ever since humans realized that it was burnable. It naturally appears in large deposits of brownish to black flaky material, which are mined in large volumes.

Coal mining and processing can lead to pollution, just as many industrial processes do. Making the mining process more clean and efficient is one way to create cleaner coal. In addition, many countries now chemically wash their coal to remove some impurities. Doing this before burning the coal ensures that the impurities will not be released into the atmosphere, although the chemicals that are cleaned off still need to be appropriately dealt with so that they do not enter the environment.

Since most modern coal is burned in power plants to generate electricity, making power plants cleaner and more efficient is an important part of clean coal as well. Coal burning power plants are often old and highly inefficient, since coal is cheap and readily available, making increased efficiency not financially logical. Many countries have started to mandate that power plants scrub the air in their exhaust stacks with filters before releasing it, and that power companies take steps to make sure that the energy in coal is fully utilized when it is burned.

Another type of fuel that it is often included in this category is not really coal at all, but an entirely new product known as gasified coal. Gasified coal has been treated to turn it into a gaseous fuel, such as methane or hydrogen, while extracting the bulk of the harmful carbon dioxide. The fuel is burned for energy, yielding cleaner and more environmentally sound coal-based energy. Since natural gas prices began skyrocketing in the late 1990s, gasified coal began to attract attention.

To produce this fuel, the coal is mixed with a catalyst and subjected to high levels of heat and steam. This causes a chemical reaction that separates the coal into hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other inorganic solids which filter out. The hydrogen and methane can both be used as fuels, while the carbon dioxide is often injected deep into the ground or otherwise disposed of. In theory, a coal fired power plant could become zero emission by using this clean coal technology. This process may also eventually yield liquid fuels from coal.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon296851 — On Oct 13, 2012

The fact of the matter is that clean coal is a red herring used by the industry. There is no clean coal and no practical technology available to make it so. As far as co2 sequestration, the first attempt at a large scale pilot was shut down when it went horribly over budget. The most optimistic estimate is that a large scale test will not even occur until 2020 at the earliest.

Clean coal is jargon used in ads by the coal industry to justify building more dirty plants now, so we can clean them up later. But the technology as it is understood now cannot be retrofitted.

By anon116732 — On Oct 07, 2010

@anon29586: because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which in large amounts in the atmosphere will increase the effects of the greenhouse effect, which leads to the warming of the earth. Oh, and methane is a greenhouse gas too, by the way, but just not as bad as CO2.

By anon29586 — On Apr 04, 2009

How is it that carbon dioxide, a gas that plants breathe and humans exhale, is "harmful", while methane gas is not?

By nanalove10 — On Feb 11, 2008

Will clean coal still be mined the same way if they turn to using that, or do they have a safer way to mine it?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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