Coal is an abundant and essential natural resource, even if we do not use it to produce electricity. Coal has become the boogeyman to environmentalists and global warming advocates. Some of that title is deserved, and some of it is not. 

With that being said, we must realize what is happening with our coal.

We have required so many pollution controls to be placed on coal-fired power plants that coal has become unprofitable. As a consequence, no new coal-fired power plants have been built in the United States. No new coal-fired plants have not stopped our coal mines from producing coal. The coal that we do not use now goes to China. Our coal makes them more competitive at manufacturing. Their electricity cost is about $6 per MWh, and ours hovers around $12 per MWh here in Ohio. Cheaper energy allows them to take industry away from the United States. If China does not have access to American coal, its energy cost will increase to $10 per MWh.

So, how do we keep more of our coal in the United States, allow coal companies to make a profit, and keep our environment healthy? There are several ways we can accomplish this.

Many people do not realize that coal ash contains rare earth elements and many metals in oxide form. Rare earth elements are used in the electronics and aerospace industry. There is a tremendous amount of aluminum in coal ash and metals that can be used to make HSLW (High Strength Light Weight Steel). These are the components that can make cars and trucks lightweight yet more robust. One way to keep more coal in the United States is by using coal ash; currently, coal ash is buried or used as a drywall-board component. 

Why don't we use currently available extraction technology to recycle coal ash into its components?

Two reasons:

  1. Coal ash is contaminated with heavy radioactive materials such as Uranium and Thorium. While there is a market for Uranium, there is no current market for Thorium. Thorium is currently very expensive to dispose of.
  2. The metal components in coal ash are all found in an oxide form and need heat to separate the metal component's oxygen component. With the fuel cost to produce heat, it is not economically feasible at current market rates to make metals and alloys from coal ash that would compete with currently produced metals and alloys.

So, the problem is finding a use for Thorium and finding very cheap heat.

Theoretically, these problems could be solved by a Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), which uses Thorium as its fuel. I won't go into details on MSR technology. I will say that America has already built a demonstration MSR, and it operated flawlessly. In addition to Thorium, an MSR can use our high-level, long-lived nuclear waste as a fuel source and produces no carbon dioxide. An MSR can also create an abundance of medical isotopes, including the rare kinds that fight cancer's most aggressive forms. The MSR runs at atmospheric pressure, is very small, and its physics makes it extremely safe. The United States can commercialize MSR technology very quickly.

Development of the MSR would mean: 

  • Recycling of coal ash through extraction technology.
  • Producing rare earth metals necessary for producing electronics.
  • Reducing and eliminating our high-level long-lived nuclear waste.
  • Producing aluminum and HSLW steels can help make cars more robust and safer while being more fuel-efficient.
  • Fighting cancer and saving lives with medical isotopes.

The MSR development would help our competitiveness, but it would also be a boon to our environment. 

So, the MSR takes care of hundreds of years' worth of coal ash, but what about current coal reserves? Coal can be used as a feedstock to recycle organic waste that would otherwise be landfilled or dumped into the water. Coal can be used to modulate the hydrocarbon content of municipal solid waste and sewage in a plasma gasifier. Plasma gasification technology is not currently economically feasible in the United States due to the cost of electricity. A Thorium-based MSR eliminates this problem, as it can produce electricity at a greatly reduced cost compared to natural gas or coal.


Ohio's coal, even the dirtiest subgrade coal that Ohio has, can be mixed with municipal solid waste and with sewage to produce syn (synthetic) gas. Syn-gas can be made into many things:

  • Syn-gas can be transformed into DME (Di-Methyl Ether), an ultra-clean replacement for diesel fuel (very few modifications need to be made for semi-trucks to run DME). 
  • It can be used as a chemical building block for fertilizers, polymers, plastics, and rubber. 
  • It can also be processed and made into ultra-clean gasoline and jet-fuel replacement.

Plasma gasification has a few byproducts:

  • Oxygen 
  • Distilled and sterilized water
  • Vitrified slag 

The vitrified slag can be sold as a very high-strength lightweight aggregate for concrete and blacktop. Oxygen can be sold to industry and to medical facilities. The water produced can be used in various industrial processes.

How does this benefit the 13th District?

Plasma gasification is a very mature and proven technology. Utilizing Sierra Energy's technology, we can convert old steel-mills and their blast furnaces into recycling centers and eliminate all of Ohio's landfills. The 13th District has many sites with rail access that would be perfect for a plasma-gasification facility and close to old power plant facilities with large ash piles and close to new coal production. We can produce aluminum, HSLW steels for autos and buildings, plastics, rubber, fertilizer, and DME.

We have the potential to turn the rust belt into the steel belt and create thousands of good-paying jobs, all the while helping the environment.

My solution would be to author legislation to utilize America's research and development dollars to commercialize America's already developed MSR and plasma gasification technologies.

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