Coal and Lithium. Whats cleaner?
Whilst the world is obsessed with the coronavirus, good news happens, too. The new partner of this newspaper, the Global Energy Association, published earlier this week the initial results of the new nomination process for its USD 500.000+ Global Energy Prize. It is the Association, which was to become a new key participant of the “Eurasia-Caribbean: New Energy” international conference planned in Grenada. Due to the outbreak of the virus and the measures announced in St George’s, the conference has been postponed, but, as promised, the Global Energy Prize Association continues providing us with interesting news and analysis. Firstly it should be said, that for the first time in the Prize’s 18 years existence nominations from the developed world (USA, Europe, Russia) are joined by the ones from the South, including Latin Americans from Brazil and Chile, South Africans, Saudis and Qataris. Whilst the Global Energy’s experts are to determine a short list and the members of its International award committee, which included Nobel Prize laureat, is to determine the winners, we continue our series of publications on the most pressing issues faced by the energy sector globally and regionally. Our today’s piece in on what many people consider a thing from the past: coal. Yet, when the Global Energy’s President Dr Sergey Brilev went to visit a coal mine in Siberia, his interviewee shared some truly provocative reflections. Here is a chat conducted 250 meters below the surface with Anatoly Yanovski: a co-author of Russia’s coal industry restructuring, the consequence of it being the fact, that today’s Russia produces more coal than in the Soviet times. Let us not forget that the New World (Colombia and USA) is a major producer, too. Not to mention that during the interview there is a moment when the two sides touch upon the subject of lithium – a very hot subject given recent developments in and around Bolivia.
SB: I think that both of us, you and I, have enough acquaintances, who somewhere in Europe will consider the set of this interview an anathema, because these days everything should be generated by windmills and the sun. Does coal have a future? Maybe we are some kind of retrogrades here in Russia?
AB: I think that for many sensible people, it is obvious, that the development of scientific and technological progress is underway and technological patterns are changing. This is a completely natural process. At the same time, the so-called unconventional energy sources have appeared right in front of us over the past 20 years. As well as the wind power got development…
SB: God bless.
AB: As well as wind and solar power. And that is all good. And that’s right. Just as at the time when the first large-scale hydro power appeared, and then nuclear power. Each of them finds its own place in the global energy balance, as well as coal generation, and coal power plants. It has to be said, that over the years, neither the volume of coal consumption in the world nor the volume of world trade of coal fell. I’m talking about the last 5,10, 15, 20 years. They always have been growing. And continue to grow…
SB: But you have mentioned in your recent article that 59% of the energy balance in China is coal.
AB: Yes. At the same time the share of coal in the balance is completely different from one country to another. First of all, it depends on climate patterns and available resource base. That is how it is in China. In our country it is significantly lower, because our geography is somewhat different. Each country finds optimal solutions for itself. But what is important that, according to all forecasts, no matter how the structure of the world energy balance will change, coal is always present in this balance, either in a larger volume or in a smaller volume. The international coal trade continues to persist and develop in these circumstances. Russia is quite able to take its place here... It has already taken a rightful place. But also, in the future we have every reason to… Today you saw, we showed you this mine, equipped with the most advanced high-performance equipment, which in terms of labour productivity and the entire work of this enterprise is in no way inferior, and in many cases, superior to any foreign equivalents. So, we do have an opportunity to compete.
SB: Well, what can those who are listening to us now say? That you are the author of the concept of restructuring the coal industry in Russia, a person with interests, and you are ignoring the fact that coal is dirty.
AB: Well, I think, the question of “dirt” requires a substantial clarification. And let's try to evaluate what is clean? For example, we are talking about solar power, right? Solar power is based on silicon solar cells. And the production of silicon itself is an extremely dirty production. That is exactly why silicon production is carried out in countries, so to speak, not with the most favourable environmental situation. Therefore, if we are talking about the nuclear power. Is it clean? Yes, kind of clean. But there is question of the disposal of waste from the activities of a nuclear power plant and so on. We are talking about energy storage, we are talking about the development of electric vehicles, everything raises the topic of lithium, lithium production, and then lithium utilization. This is also far from being a trivial task. That is why, coal with current modern technologies for its use, that exist in the world primarily in the energy sector, the so-called clean coal generation technologies, that are being used in Japan, Korea, China, and Europe, is no worse than other energy sources, including hydrocarbons.
SB: Well, not to mention coal chemistry, probably. Although there is more talk than practice, there is a future.
AB: Well, actually the topic of coal chemistry does exist. But, in my opinion, there is a certain misbelief. It is in the fact that in order to get something from a coal chemistry, a product, first you need to turn coal into gas, into the so called synthesis gas. And further processes are already known enough. There are different ways to obtain this synthesis gas. But at the same time, we understand that an additional technological redistribution in the production of chemical products appears. The production of this chemical product simply from gas, from gas chemistry, where an additional redistribution appears, under any conditions and any development of technology will cost extra money. It is obvious, that the production of chemistry obtained from coal will always be more expensive than the production of chemistry derived from gas.
SB: But coal remains as fuel?
AB: It is also remaining as a valuable source for coal chemistry. I was talking just now about mass production, mass use. And coal has unique properties and great potential of the so called low-tonnage coal chemistry for the production of special products that can be obtained only from coal, but on a small scale.
SB: Well, also, we will probably pay additional attention to this topic at the Global Energy Association’s discussion platform.
AB: It seems to me, this would’ve been very interesting and useful for everyone. The environmentally friendly use of such a resource as coal, which is, first of all, publicly available. It can be found in all regions of the world, it can be mined everywhere. It is easy to transport.
It doesn’t need any special delivery vehicles. It can be easily transported by sea and rivers, the railway, by motor vehicles. In this sense, coal has a future. Therefore, it is necessary, to look at it from the point of view of environmentally friendly production of the corresponding products from it, as you rightly said before.
SB: Thank you.