Given the extremely low price of natural gas due to drilling shale gas and the possibility of future regulations on GHG emissions from large power plants, the future of coal is looking pretty bleak right now. Of course, the future of coal will depend a lot on whether natural gas prices increase and the economics of building coal power plants with CO2 capture&sequestration technology. In a previous post, I mentioned that converting coal into hydrogen and natural gas (and sequestering the by-product -->CO2) can be economically viable if natural gas prices increase above ~$6/mscf ($6/GJ) and if CO2 prices are above ~$20/ton CO2. However, in a future post, I'm going to discuss why the price of natural gas is unlikely to go above $6/mscf in the US in next decade unless we immediately start building a large number of LNG export terminals and convert a significant fraction of our transportation fleet to CNG/LPG.
Yet coal's best days may still be ahead of it.
Coal has all of the elements to make something that's even more valuable right now than electricity, and that's food. Like gasoline prices, food prices are soaring ever higher. So,I've been thinking about other uses for the abundant coal resources in the US, and the best use of coal that I could think of was to use low-rank coals as fertilizer for growing crops. In some ways, this is not a new idea. For example, in China, there are coal gasification plants that are converting coal into chemicals. One of the chemicals made at these plants is ammonia, the starting point for nitrogen fertilizers. But what I'm suggesting in this post is that we use low-grade coal in the same way people use waste food and newspapers in compost piles to make fertilizer.
Whether you can add low-grade coal directly to the compost pile in your backyard is still an open question, but there's been decades of research on using bacteria and yeast to turn low grade coals (lignite and some sub-bituminous coals) into humic acid like chemicals that can be used to help grow crops.
I mentioned in a previous post (on human reproductive rights) that countries like China and Uzbekistan should focus more on growing more food for their people rather than controlling the reproductive rights of its people.
So, how do we globally grow more crops? One suggestions I have is to use low-grade coal as soil supplements and fertilizers. For example, we could increase the amount of farm lands in the US if we mass produced coal-based fertilizers and used the fertilizers to convert the badlands of South Dakota and nearby states into decent land for growing corn or wheat. Right now, there are parts of North and South Dakota, as well as Wyoming and Montana,
that look as barren as Mars. We could change that, and increase food production, if we mined some of the coal from that region and used the coal as fertilizer for growing crops. So, how do we improve the soil qualitity in places like these?
One way to do this is to:
1) Surface mine lignite and sub-bituminous coal from this region of the US
2) Send the coal to a large worm composting facility (needs to be built)
2a) Certain aerobic yeast and bacteria would also have to be introduced to the worm composting facility. The yeast and bacteria would breakdown the coal into substances that would get further broken down by the worms.
2b) In addition to sending coal to the worm composting facility, we could also send food waste and newspapers. Worms just love converting this material into fertilizer.
3) Mix the 'worm castings' generated at the facility with basic materials (pH raising materials, such as lime or coal ash) and with nitrogen/phosphate fertilizers.
4) Send the worm castings/ash/fertilizer to lands in the Northern US that now have growing seasons long enough to grow corn
This is one way that we can increase global food production without harming the natural environment. While some strict environmentalists might be upset with the idea brought up in this post because it involves coal, I think that it's important to remember that coal is a natural resource that can be used by bacteria and yeast to grow, and since the coal used to be living plant material, it's got all of the elements to help make more living plant material in the future. If we can use coal to make more crops and help keep down the price of food, then we have created a real win-win situation. And since the goal of life is to grow life, let's use coal to its fullest potential and use it to help feed people.
If you're interested in purchasing coal-based fertilizer, here's a link to a company in Australia called Humus Plus that uses brown coal (low-grade coal) to make fertilizer. If you have experience using coal as a fertilizer or using coal in your compost pile, please comment below on what your experience has been using the fertilizer or maintaining the compost pile.