Dear Matthew Alice: As usual, my hubby tells me some off-the-wall things, most of which I can’t find out for sure at the local library. In this one, he said that in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the coal company has a big pipeline all the way to the East Coast. They dump in the coal and use water to flush the coal along the pipe. Have you ever heard of such a thing? It sure sounds a bit "fishy” to me. Let me know if you find out. — Ella Mae Miller, San Diego
Would you settle for half-fishy? Hubby’s taken a few facts and created a little science fiction. He’s right, coal is transported through water-filled pipes, but in only one U.S. location. Southern California Edison’s Black Mesa power plant in Nevada annually receives about five tons of pipeline coal that’s flushed 275 miles from a mine in northeastern Arizona. At the plant, they filter out the pulverized coal, dry it, and burn it. (The U.S. Department of Energy has an experimental pipeline at the University of Missouri that moves compressed-coal “logs” with water, but there’s not yet one in operation.) Pulverized coal burns cleaner and allows more of the fine particles from the mining operation to be burned as well, so less fuel is wasted. The Defense Department has some research money in coal transport, since our reserves of this fuel match Middle Eastern reserves of oil, making us potentially less energy-vulnerable in time of war.
Having converted from premium fuels during the 1970s oil crunch, some U.S. power plants, 55 percent of which are coal fired, now burn a slurry made of 50 percent ground coal and 50 percent water (without extracting and drying the coal). They’re also candidates to receive their so-called coal-water fuel through pipelines direct from the mine. But the technology is expensive, and most of today’s U.S. energy investment dollars are in pollution reduction, not fuel transport. Keep your eye on Japan and and coal-rich China for the realization of Mr. Miller’s 2000-mile-long coal chute.