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Replacing Coal with Biomass to Create a
Cleaner, Greener Power Future

The recent world events are showing that we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels which generate over 80% of our primary energy consumed. Nevertheless, fossil fuels will play an important role over the next several decades as we transition into other energy carriers. The South Carolina SmartState Center for Strategic Approaches to the Generation of Electricity (SAGE) is directed by Dr. Jochen Lauterbach, SmartState Endowed Research Chair and Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of South Carolina. One focus of SAGE is developing catalysts and related processes to replace the burning of coal, which releases carbon that has been stored in the ground for millions of years, with the burning of biomass which recycles carbon already present above ground. Waste biomass may to be able to replace close to half of the coal that is being fired in South Carolina's coal power plants.

Described below is how an Innovation Collaboration Agreement (ICA) can be crafted around this opportunity using the Great Jobs Through Innovation Excellence Act (Great Jobs) Innovation Ecosystem Framework (click for a more detailed graphic).

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Established Research

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A recent SAGE-developed technology combines waste heat from an existing power plant with a recyclable catalyst to replace coal with a variety of waste biomass and to generate valuable hydrogen in the same process. This technology started in a small reactor in the university laboratories and is ready to be validated in a pilot coal power plant in South Carolina.

Market Pull Innovation and Commercialization

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Power companies, such as Santee Cooper, Duke Energy, or Dominion Energy, might use biomass waste from logging operations as an alternative fuel. SAGE and the power company would enter into an ICA. The power company would define a pilot project they would find acceptable to validate that biomass can replace coal in their power plants. Through Great Jobs, the State would fund additional SAGE research to transition this technology from the lab into the pilot plant. The power company must match the State funding, which might be done by investing in converting one of its power plants to demonstrate that a large-scale unit can replace coal with biomass.

The ICA would address the marketing of this system to other power producers once it is validated. Perhaps an existing company like Buck Enterprises in Columbia, which currently manufactures the catalyst cores, could be a party to the ICA to manufacture the new biomass system in SC and then market it around the world. Another option would be for a new entrepreneurial company headquartered in SC to be formed to manufacture and market the innovation. A lead economic development agency or entrepreneurial support organization would be a party to the ICA to ensure the company commercializing the innovation has access to all the appropriate incentives, funding, and other assistance available to help the company grow in SC. 

Commercialization and Workforce Development

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With the pilot project validation complete,  the best leaders to manage a new biomass power plant are students graduating from SAGE who are experts in the development and scale-up of this technology. Once employed by the power company, these students could also lead the further development of large-scale systems, which would include also sophisticated sensor and control technology.

Power companies would require skilled workers to operate these new biomass power plants. SAGE has previously partnered with the virtual reality center at Florence Darlington Tech, which could be the lead technical college in the ICA to generate VR training material for operators of the system.

The ICA may also include SC Coalition for Mathematics & Science to design an engagement with K-12 teachers and students to inspire the next generation to pursue careers in creating a cleaner, greener power future. 

Thank you for joining the Great Jobs journey.