The Gasification Systems Program and its forerunners played an important role in development of efficient coal-power technologies in the United States. Notably, these included highly efficient and low-polluting integrated gasification combined cycle power plants, among the best-performing coal-based plants of their era when they were commissioned in the late 20th century. The Gasification Systems Program has continued development of coal gasification and syngas technologies; notable examples include transport gasification and warm syngas cleanup. However, coal syngas-based units for power production and other uses struggle in the current market situation both domestically and abroad.
Gasification Technology Evolution
Coal-based plants of the future will need to be highly efficient, flexible, reliable, and environmentally responsible to compete with other sources of power generation. The inherent advantages of gasification in efficiency and environmental performance underscore the importance of the Gasification Systems Program technology development towards meeting these objectives. Essentially, new gasification-based coal plants must have competitive efficiencies and minimized costs (especially dispatch costs considering the increasing demand for load following induced by the increasing presence of renewable power assets on the grid). To compete domestically, new power generation technologies will need to be flexible, in terms of cycling quickly and handling multiple fuel types (e.g., coal and natural gas, coal and biomass). Gasification results in syngas, useful in flexible power generation options such as combustion turbines and engines, but also enables other value-added uses such as fuels production. The versatility possessed by gasification gives it significant potential in a varied marketplace.
Path Forward: Modularity
In response to market needs for maximum flexibility at minimized costs, the program is now centered on the idea of advanced modular gasification-based systems, with goals/objectives to advance the science, engineering, design, and technology for construction of advanced, modular coal conversion plants. The flexibility of modular configurations enables their deployment in a wide range of sites and applications that would not be practicable or cost-effective for a traditional, large-scale coal power plant.
Modular air separation/oxygen production, modular coal conversion/syngas producing reactors, siting, sizing and otherwise tailoring modular plants for market viability, and thorough systems integration of modular plants extend the principle to all aspects of coal conversion and syngas-based plants and systems. With this approach, the program can explore economically viable possibilities of modular gasification/conversion of coal to allow distributed electricity generation, fuels and chemicals production, or polygeneration. Modular or smaller-scale implementations would reduce capital investment, allow access to niche markets, and permit flexibility in siting to take advantage of local feedstock availability and labor pools. It is expected that reaction intensification, innovative fabrication of reactor components, advanced materials and manufacturing methods, and increasingly sophisticated modeling and simulation will underpin development of modular technology for using coal more efficiently to create more valuable end products from coal and other opportunity feedstocks.