Secondary Emissions

“Working In a Coal Mine” (with a nod to Lee Dorsey)

In these blogs, I expect to write often about where the next wave of engineering jobs might be coming from. That resonates because I have been seriously underemployed (cab driver, small-market DJ, etc.) during various recessions since the aerospace crash of 1970.  One thing I’ve noticed is that recoveries have been based on tectonic shifts in technology: microcontrollers and embedded systems, TTL eclipsed by CMOS, the Web, etc.  I’m expecting that power engineering, the courses that most of us EEs didn’t take many of, is likely to provide the next shift. I also expect that China, as a partner and a market, is a critical factor.  I believe I got a glimpse of one source of the next shift in a long article ( titled: “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” in the December issue of the Atlantic by James Fallows (, who writes and teaches about the Far East and military, and industrial issues.  It’s a long piece (8000 words or so), and it’s more wide-ranging than this blog can be, but I’ll quote some interesting parts later.

In summary, Fallows appears to be saying: 1) as a matter of practicality, making coal burn cleaner is a large and necessary component of reducing the damage caused by adding more CO2 into the atmosphere; 2) North American coal and energy companies already acknowledge this; 3) Chinese companies are rapidly building facilities to actually do clever things with coal (like extract the energy without taking the coal out of the ground while leaving the CO2 in the ground; and 4) North American companies are already engaged with Chinese partners on projects in China.  I’ll add my own point, which is that, as engineers, if we ain’t looking at China as a market, we’re nuts.

The reason Fallows’ article runs 8000 words is that those assertions take a lot of backing up, but he is pretty good at that, and at not overselling his points.  I finished the article feeling there were probably a lot of potential new engineering jobs that involve partnering with the Chinese, primarily in industrial control, but with lots of opportunity up and down the technology chain from chips to code to machines, and that they probably don’t involve selling one’s soul, even if they involve working with a political system that can approve and construct a power plant in 21 months. (Yes, that’s way too fast, but “never” is way too slow. Remember the ‘60s? May 25, 1961: Kennedy’s to Congress: “Man on the moon in this decade”; July 20, 1969: “Houston, this is Tranquility Base.”)*

Here are some highlights from the article.  It meanders, but if you want to be designing something besides ever-bigger televisions and ever tinier telephones, reading it all might give you something to think about.

“For the coal industry, the term “clean coal” is an advertising slogan; for many in the environmental movement, it is an insulting oxymoron. But two ideas that underlie the term are taken with complete seriousness by businesses, scientists, and government officials in China and America, and are the basis of the most extensive cooperation now under way between the countries on climate issues. One is that coal can be used in less damaging, more sustainable ways than it is now. The other is that it must be used in those ways, because there is no plausible other way to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands.”

“And in any case, all parties to the negotiations I’m describing, including the heads of the major coal-mining and electric-power utilities in the United States and China, accept as settled fact that greenhouse-gas emissions are an emergency they must confront, because of the likely disruptive effects on the world’s climate.

“The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, ‘the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar’ . . .  Bryce describes a visit to a single coal mine, the Cardinal Mine in western Kentucky, whose daily output supports three-quarters as much electricity generation as all the solar and wind facilities in the United States combined.

“What would progress on coal entail? The proposals are variations on two approaches: ways to capture carbon dioxide before it can escape into the air and ways to reduce the carbon dioxide that coal produces when burned. In “post-combustion” systems, the coal is burned normally, but then chemical or physical processes separate carbon dioxide from the plume of hot flue gas that comes out of the smokestack. Once “captured” as a relatively pure stream of carbon dioxide, this part of the exhaust is pressurized into liquid form and then sold or stored. Refitting an existing coal plant can be very costly. “It’s like trying to remodel your home into a mansion,” a coal-plant manager told me in Beijing. “It’s more expensive, and it’s never quite right.” Apart from research projects, only two relatively small coal-fired power plants now operate in America with post-combustion capture.”

“’ Pre-combustion’” systems are fundamentally more efficient. In them, the coal is treated chemically to produce a flammable gas with lower carbon content than untreated coal. This means less carbon dioxide going up the smokestack to be separated and stored.

“Either way, pre- or post-, the final step in dealing with carbon is “sequestration”—doing something with the carbon dioxide that has been isolated at such cost and effort, so it doesn’t just escape into the air. Carbon dioxide has a surprisingly large number of small-scale commercial uses, starting with adding the sparkle to carbonated soft drinks. . . . . All larger-scale, longer-term proposals for storing carbon involve injecting it deep underground, into porous rock that will trap it indefinitely. In the right geological circumstances, the captured carbon dioxide can even be used for “enhanced oil recovery,” forcing oil out of the porous rock into which it is introduced and up into wells.”

“’ In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,’ a U.S. government official who works in China said. ‘Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese.’

“’’You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,’ the official added. ‘The energy demand is going like this’—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—‘and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.’”


*The catalyst for Kennedy’s speech was Yuri Gagarin’s April 12 orbit on April 12. I sure miss the incentive we got from those “dirty Russian commies” back during the Cold War.  As Constantine Cavafy wrote in a different context, “Those people were a kind of solution.” (

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