By Ron Kotrba | December 02, 2010

Does a coal-based fuel have any place in biorefining? This was the topic of a recent blog entry of mine on The Biorefining Blog, which is distributed in our weekly e-newsletter, Biorefining Week, and found on our magazine’s website. When coal is used as a hybrid mix with woody biomass as feedstock for fuel or chemical refining, there are reasons these projects get support.

In the coal-rich Appalachians, West Virginia University is working on a coal-biomass feedstock for gasification and reformation into liquid fuel. This is a focal point of Associate Editor Luke Geiver’s feature article in this issue.

Coal is obviously a domestic product so a coal-biomass feedstock blend for liquid fuel production would certainly improve energy security and independence issues. The fuel, derived from coal and wood, could be 100 percent domestic, as opposed to existing biofuel blends, say B20 (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent diesel from crude, the latter likely being imported from abroad). Additionally, there would be some transportation efficiencies and cost savings without having to ship crude oil halfway around the world. Instead we could ship coal from a regional mine to a local refinery via efficient, modern locomotives. Local economic development in places like in Appalachia in the East and Wyoming in the West would also benefit.

But with coal being so rich in carbon, mercury and sulfur, there are big environmental concerns. One comment left on my blog was that these ideas of a coal-biomass feedstock blend sound like “green-washing.” Maybe so, but WVU Professor Kaushlendra Singh looks at it differently.

In his December feature article, Geiver interviews Singh, who says the U.S. consumes nearly 48 percent crude oil and nearly 28 percent coal to meet its energy needs, and the U.S. is the second largest producer of coal in the world. “Why can’t we substitute coal? If you add 20 to 30 percent biomass, you are tapping into that 28 percent consumption and you will reduce GHGs by the percentage of biomass you put in. It’s just another way to look at things.” On a similar note, would people say cofiring biomass with coal for power generation is greenwashing, or a step in the right direction?