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Clean Coal Is The Way To Power Africa – And South African Academics Know How

March 18, 2018
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By Paul Homewood


GWPF brings us the story, originally published by the Daily Maverick, of how South African academics are pushing the frontiers of clean coal:



Professor Rosemary Falcon heads the Sustainable Coal Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, where the late Nelson Mandela studied law in the 1950s.

Falcon leads a team of nine academics along with 20 Mastersand doctoral students who, with their own laboratory at Wits, say they have proved conclusively that clean coal is not only possible, but among the cheapest ways to generate electricity on a continent where more than 600 million Africans live without power.

“It starts by understanding that coal varies enormously,” she said.

“Each region has a different recipe of minerals and fossil matter, and if you give me a lump of coal out of Kenya, the US, Europe, India or Colombia, I can probably tell you where it’s from.”

In North America, she said, coal was formed in hot, steamy swamps, and it burns rapidly. Ours was formed at the end of an ice age and burns for longer and at a higher temperature.


Photo: Professor Rosemary Falcon and her husband, Lionel, a retired engineer ‘who helps me understand how to apply our science in the real world’. Photo: Geoff Hill


“An industrial boiler from Europe, fed with South African coal, will melt because our product burns so hot. But we also have more ash that actually absorbs heat, making the fire less efficient. So one of the first steps is to alter the coal before you light the fire. Or build a boiler designed for each coal type.”

Working with Falcon is Dr Nandi Malumbazo who took her PhD in chemical engineering at Wits.

“In Africa, the use of coal is growing and that’s something we have to deal with,” she says.

“The challenge is to burn it more cleanly and this starts at the mine with techniques we’ve developed to separate poor quality coal from the better stuff that is already less toxic.

“You then crush it and remove elements that will not contribute to a good burn. Like unleaded petrol, you’re starting from a better place. Less ash, less fumes, more heat and a longer burn. From there we’ve done experiments and written up peer-reviewed research to show we can use it way cleaner than in most countries.”

South Africa gets more than 90% of its power from coal, in Botswana it’s 100%, and both Kenya and Tanzania are building new coal-fired generators.

The Wits research has drawn praise from across the continent. Dr Samson Bada of Nigeria has joined the team, along with Dr Jacob Masiala from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both are working on ways to get the lights on in Africa and keep the air clean. There are also post-graduate staff and students from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.

“If we mix pulverised coal with bamboo, something that grows well in Africa, we take emission levels down even further,” said Masiala.

“Of course, a bamboo plantation also gives you carbon credits, and we can grow it on old mine sites to rehabilitate the ground. It’s a winner on so many fronts.”

West Africa has a low grade of coal, formed more recently than elsewhere though still millions of years old. But while Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, only half the population is on the grid.

“Air pollution is a serious problem in my country,” said Bada.

“We must bring it down but we also need a lot more clean electricity. The research we are doing here can change everything.”

However, for all its groundbreaking work, South Africa’s clean coal is in trouble.

“Funding has been difficult,” said Falcon.

“We have to scrape and beg for every cent. I’m hoping a new approach to coal in Washington will see money for work like ours, not just in the US but across the globe, and we’d be happy to share our findings with the world, and to teach and train people everywhere, especially in Africa,” she said.

Falcon and her team have indeed shared their findings. She has given lectures at prestigious schools like Cambridge University in England, while Nandi Malumbazo has been to Germany, Australia and the Philippines. Bada and Masiala have delivered papers in the US, Norway and Italy.

The use of coal to generate electricity in Africa is at a record high, with new plants under way in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa. Bada has little time for those who condemn this.

“I am tired of being lectured by people in rich countries who have never lived a day without electricity,” he said.

“Maybe they should just go home and turn off their fridge, geyser, their laptops and lights. Then live like that for a month and tell us, who have suffered for years, not to burn coal.”

Masiala agrees.

“Aid groups come to Africa and give out solar lamps the size of a pumpkin,” he said.

“But no one in London or Los Angeles would be willing to make do with that. Don’t tell me that China, Russia and the West should have electricity and black people in Mali or Mozambique should live in huts with light from a solar toy. We need power for cities, factories, mines and to run schools and hospitals.”

The coming revolution in Africa, he said, was not about land, religion or politics, but a lack of jobs.

“Africa is urbanising faster than anywhere on the planet. And our urban youth are on the same Facebook and WhatsApp as kids in Chicago. They watch the same Big Bang Theory on TV and have the same aspirations.”

Millions of school leavers, he said, can read and do algebra but have no work. And the lack of industry, he said, was linked to electricity.

Bada said he was a fan of wind and solar, but the technology was not yet there to industrialise a continent.

“Solar doesn’t work at night, and turbines stand idle when the wind doesn’t blow,” he said.

“How do you run an operating theatre with that? How do you power a city, a school, the lift in a gold mine taking workers more than two miles underground? There has to be a baseload power supply and this can be complemented with solar. The industrial revolution and the growth of China and India has all been powered by coal. The good news is we can now burn it cleanly.”

Bada said thousands of power stations around the world are still pumping out emissions from coal when it was possible to make them clean.

“What holds up the process is not a lack of knowledge, but funding and political will. And every day we live with the status quo, people are forced to breathe dirty air. That is tantamount to a crime against humanity if we have the science but do nothing.”

African countries, he said, needed a massive jump in the amount of power they generate.

“Tanzania, for example, has around 70% of its people still short of electricity while it sits on four billion tons of coal. And still we hear activists from wealthy countries chanting, ‘Leave it in the ground.’

“Electricity in Africa is not just an ethical issue, it’s the key to security and growth. It’s having no work and no hope that sees people forced into poverty, joining militia or heading for Europe,” he said. “The rich world ignores that at its peril.”

Full story


In the West, we often hear “clean coal” as describing CO2 free. However, in most of the world, the term means what it says – free of real pollutants (or at least as clean as possible).

HELE (High Efficiency Low Emissions) coal fired stations are an obvious example of this, as they can produce much more power for a given input of coal.

It is encouraging that these South African scientists are taking matters a few steps further. If African countries can deploy coal power, in some cases using the reserves they are sat on, with drastically reduced pollution, it is a win/win situation for the continent.

It is disgraceful that developed countries in the West are doing their best to stop it.

  1. Bloke down the pub permalink
    March 18, 2018 12:47 pm

    Earth hour is about as long as the environmentalists are prepared to go without mains electricity.

  2. March 18, 2018 12:54 pm

    However, it must be recognized that the REAL intent of the anti-fossil fuel crowd, and especially the UN, is to do away with capitalism in favor of Marxism with them in charge. Coal, gas and oil are just vehicles used to destroy advanced civilization.

  3. Bitter@twisted permalink
    March 18, 2018 12:59 pm

    These African scientists are spot on, both with their science and the needs of their people.
    The UN and other do-gooder“aid” agencies need to shut-up and stop interfering with the sensible development of these countries.

    • Mike Jackson permalink
      March 18, 2018 4:12 pm

      How can it possibly be sensible when it all goes against everything the UN believes in?

      The idea that these poor benighted heathens (even the ones that aren’t heathen) know better than the great and the good in New York how their world should be is nauseatingly patrinising — the more so when it is mostly their own people that are patronising them.

      With the help of liberal first world money, of course!

  4. John Palmer permalink
    March 18, 2018 1:15 pm

    I think that Africa is seen by the ‘Green Blob’ – lead by Greenpeace, WWF, the UN etc. as a battle (against coal in particular) they must not lose. In terms of future energy production growth Africa is huge.
    They have effectively shut down avenues of finance from the West for new developments, unless they’re ‘green’. This however is allowing the Chinese – and probably others, to step in and thereby establish political and economic power and natural resource rights across the Continent. Own-goal for the Greenies and the West I’m afraid.
    More power to these researchers!

  5. RoyHartwell permalink
    March 18, 2018 1:55 pm

    That has to be one of the most considered and sensible reports I’ve read in a long time. More common sense spoken than the whole of the green blob have come up with in years.

  6. Adam Gallon permalink
    March 18, 2018 1:55 pm

    This’ll get the Warmistas screaming & crying.

  7. Richard Woollaston permalink
    March 18, 2018 2:03 pm

    What a great display of common sense.

  8. March 18, 2018 2:08 pm

    Unfortunately we have lots of “scientists” and activists who are promoting “carbon” tax and “renewables”, ignoring real scientists and running like lemmings after the pseudo scientists.

    • Russ Wood permalink
      March 18, 2018 3:10 pm

      South Africa’s ‘Carbon Tax’ is starting in April. I wonder how much will go to fund researchers like this – or will it just go into the politicians’ friends’ pockets, as usual.

  9. Jack Broughton permalink
    March 18, 2018 3:18 pm

    Clean coal fired power plant has been available for many years, it is only carbon dioxide obsession that stops coal from providing cheap, clean, reliable and secure power in the UK, as many other countries are learning. As someone noted earlier, history only teaches us that we do not learn from history.

    • jim permalink
      March 19, 2018 2:04 am

      Indeed Jack. I read this with approval, but thought it was such a shame that it has to be relearnt. Nearly every UK coal fired power station in the UK was designed slightly differently to accomodate different coals from around the world as well as the UK. Clean coal has been available for decades, NoX, SoX scrubbers , FGD etc. Its only the madness of CO2 that has stopped its wide application.

  10. A C Osborn permalink
    March 18, 2018 3:26 pm

    I doubt very much if most of their polution is caused by their current Coal Generation, much more likely to be from burning wood & dung.

  11. John F. Hultquist permalink
    March 18, 2018 5:10 pm

    Nice information. Thanks.

    “Each region has a different recipe of minerals and fossil matter, and if you give me a lump of coal out of Kenya, the US, Europe, India or Colombia, I can probably tell you where it’s from.”

    I have a chunk of anthracite from eastern Pennsylvania (PA), and a chunk of soft coal from Black Diamond, Washington. The former is hard, dense, and shiny (high carbon), the other is soft, dull, gray, and may have fossils (low carbon).

    In North America, she said, coal was formed in hot, steamy swamps, and it burns rapidly. Ours was formed at the end of an ice age and burns for longer and at a higher temperature.

    This is very confusing. Nothing about an ice age causes coal – as far as I know.
    Yes, in North America, the plants that grew, died, and made coal did grow in a warm moist environment. I’m sure hers did also. The issue is what happened next.
    The hard coal of Eastern Pennsylvania was formed via the Alleghanian orogeny, approximately 325 million to 260 million years ago, with over at least five deformation events. Coal in North America is extremely diverse – she apparently has a certain “coal” in mind, but which one.

    I had a chemistry class in 1963 (or about) and we visited a U. S. Bureau of Mines research facility in Pittsburgh, PA. They had a new machine that could analyze a coal sample in about a minute. We had been using “wet chemistry” in our class; hours long procedures. So, we got to peer into the future.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 18, 2018 8:44 pm

      Powder River Basin?

      • Sheri permalink
        March 19, 2018 8:33 pm

        I thought of that. Lower in sulphur and other pollutants, not as hot burning, but very close to the surface and easy to mine. Glenrock Coal Company (now a worthless wind plant) was similar. Powder River Coal was often preferred and used to be transported by rail to the East. The mines are coming back, but slowly.

  12. HotScot permalink
    March 18, 2018 5:34 pm

    I don’t suppose well be seeing this reported in the Guardian or on the BBC any time soon.

    All those bleeding heart socialists promoting social justice etc. but unwilling to allow Capitalism to solve the non-problem they collectively terrify themselves with, because their generosity doesn’t extend beyond their own front door.

    • HotScot permalink
      March 18, 2018 5:36 pm

      * we’ll (sp)…….oops.

  13. Don B permalink
    March 18, 2018 6:13 pm

    Obama did not want Africa to have reliable, inexpensive electricity provided by coal. (Trump is urging the world to use more fossil fuels.) Why does Obama hate black people?

    • Don B permalink
      March 18, 2018 6:20 pm

      Lomborg: Obama energy policy hurts African poor (Feb. 8, 2014)
      Is it fair to use climate policies to keep poor people poor?
       Nonetheless, many rich opinion leaders feel comfortable in declaring that the trade-off for cheap energy and development is not in the interest of the poor. The United States, United Kingdom and other European countries announced last year that they won’t support international finance for coal-fired power plants in developing countries.

  14. David permalink
    March 18, 2018 6:50 pm

    Ha, love the irony of this article.. a London based organisation lecturing Africa to use coal, whilst simultaneously ranting how the west is lecturing Africa!

  15. Robin Guenier permalink
    March 18, 2018 7:29 pm

    And then there’s this:
    Unbelievable: Coal puts halt to South Africa’s renewables industry

    And this:
    Zimbabwe’s coal output set to quadruple next year as investors arrive

    • March 19, 2018 3:59 am

      Thanks for the links Robin. I left a polite but sharp comment at pv-magazine. Let’s see if it makes it through moderation.

      • Robin Guenier permalink
        March 19, 2018 10:51 am

        Well Michael van der Riet has posted a very sharp comment that survived moderation – but he (I think) is not you.

    • Sheri permalink
      March 19, 2018 8:36 pm

      It’s tough to relegate people to bicycles and horses when everyone else has cars, so to speak. Yet people keep right on trying it. Keeping people in poverty and kept down is a popular method of treating humanity.

  16. March 18, 2018 9:47 pm

    “Solar doesn’t work at night, and turbines stand idle when the wind doesn’t blow,” he said.

    No s#1t! Try explaining it to green fantasists.

  17. Harry Passfield permalink
    March 19, 2018 11:34 am

    If the WITS scientists need funding I bet they could find tons of it in Mugabe’s and Zuma’s Swiss bank accounts. Such a shame it can’t be liberated.

  18. Athelstan permalink
    March 19, 2018 3:02 pm

    As the Victorians understood it readily, as the Indians and Chinese do now, the only way to dig yourselves out of poverty is to mine coal and lots of it too, for stream power drives the generators to produce oodles of lovely, cheap electricity, to move the wheels of industry.

    Sadly in Britain, we’ve been forced to forget our own history and if you don’t read history you doom yourselves to failure and repeatedly, though it’s funny how the Germans who pay lip service to and tell others to obey the green agenda, do the exact opposite and refit their coal power plant, duplicity – Germany? Aye – you betcha.

  19. Gamecock permalink
    March 19, 2018 3:16 pm

    ‘Clean Coal Is The Way To Power Africa’

    ‘A continent where more than 600 million Africans live without power.’

    This is insidious. Get them power. THEN get it clean.

    • Sheri permalink
      March 19, 2018 8:38 pm

      No, clean and installed is best. Otherwise you play catch up cleaning up.

      • Gamecock permalink
        March 21, 2018 11:56 am

        ‘Clean’ is a luxury they can’t afford.

  20. Vernon E permalink
    March 19, 2018 3:46 pm

    RSA has a vast fund of knowledge about coal because during apartheid restrictions on imports it adopted the Fischer-Tropsch technology from the Nazis to produce oil from coal at Sasol I and Sasol II, and more recently to produce oil from natural gas at Mossel Bay (discontinued almost before start-up). This technology is environmentally disgusting but the universities like Witts made a lot of improvements and learned a lot. But as Paul rightly says “clean coal” is about removing pollutants including particulates but carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant – indeed all life depends upon it. Coal, wherever it comes from, is carbon and when it is burned carbon dioxide results. If it is burned in air the flu gas is mainly nitrogen which is why CCS is thermodynamically impossible (if it is burned in oxygen the process is negatively efficient because oxygen uses vast amounts of electricity in its production). Clean coal (i.e. without pollutants) is perfectly viable and should be the way forward not only for Africa, where coal is abundant and cheap.

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