• 02.22.12

For Cleaner Burning Coal, Throw It In The Microwave

In an ideal world, we’d stop burning coal completely. We don’t live in an ideal world, though, so while we wait to get rid of the coal, finding ways to make it burn cleaner would be helpful. One solution: just nuke it.

Opponents of coal argue that we must wean ourselves off one of the dirtiest fossil fuels around. They don’t, however, argue with statistics that show we’re burning mind-boggling volumes of the stuff every year. That weaning won’t be pleasant.


Led by emerging economies such as China, coal consumption is up 403% in Asia over 1980, while North America burns about 1.1 billion tons each year generating about half of its electricity (see this infographic to understand just how much coal China uses). The Energy Information Administration predicts world coal consumption will rise an average rate of 1.5 percent annually through 2035.

Faced by a such a forecast, coal and power companies are trying to find ways to lessen the impact of coal, instead of having it continue to blanket the atmosphere in the greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change. One company’s technology tries to make burning it more efficient by essentially microwaving low-quality coal to remove moisture and optimize the fuel. The low-frequency, high-power electromagnetic energy increases coals thermal value (BTU) by one-third while reducing sulfur dioxide and other impurities by up to 70 percent, claims CoalTek.

While the Tucker, GA-based company isn’t touting the technology as a panacea, it is claiming some green credentials for its technology. “It’s important to apply incremental technologies like the CoalTek solution today to help avert potential energy and environmental crises tomorrow,” Christopher Poirier, CEO of CoalTek writes on the company’s website. “We need to deliver cleaner technologies that support today’s baseload, dispatchable power demand, so that we can continue to invest in and develop sea-change technologies that can deliver a truly independent and renewable energy future.”

The company now has its first plant in Calvert City, Kentucky, where it has a deal to process 10 million tons of coal per year. That’s just a small dent in the damage done by massive piles of coal the world burns, but until we come up with a way to replace it all, microwaved coal might be better than the regular stuff

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.