Alternate uses for brown coal

Brown coal can be transformed into a number of different products including liquid fuels, substitute natural gas, industrial chemicals, urea fertiliser and hydrogen.

How Victoria’s brown coal is used today

The Latrobe Valley's coal is used to feed mine-mouth power generation facilities to service the domestic power market. Victoria’s three major brown coal fired power stations mine and use the coal to generate approximately 75 per cent of the state’s electricity.

The state's dependence on brown coal for electricity generation is expected to continue in the medium term, while the contribution from renewable sources will continue to increase.

Brown coal is not currently widely traded due to the challenges in exporting the raw resource. 'Run of mine' brown coal from Victoria's reserves in the Latrobe Valley is reactive and has a high moisture content, which makes it unsafe and uneconomic to export without processing (drying and stabilising).

Other opportunities for brown coal

Converting coal to liquid or gaseous fuels

Technology to convert coal to liquid or gaseous fuels has been available in various forms since the 1920s, and a number of commercial plants in other countries are in operation today.

However, in an increasingly energy hungry world, the economics are changing. As a low cost feedstock, coal converted into commodities such as diesel, methanol and its derivatives has the potential to compete with traditional feedstocks and other energy alternatives, such as oil, gas and black coal.

Drying brown coal

The adoption of suitable drying technologies could enable brown coal to be exported and compete directly in black coal markets as an energy and feedstock resource.

Potential coal derivative products

Solid fuel products

In its raw form, brown coal can be used for boiler fuel in power generation. Drying technologies can transform the product into high energy briquettes and pellets that may compete with black coal as an exportable fuel.

Chars and cokes may potentially be derived from brown coal for pyrometallurgical applications, to produce reductants and carbonising chemicals and as a general carbon source for other applications.

Calcium loaded char can be used in water and waste treatment and as an ion-exchange medium.

Brown coal can also be refined into a purer form of carbon for use in production of a number of carbon products including carbon fibres, carbon anodes, activated carbons, filter aids, pigments, graphite lubricants and conductors and formed carbon materials.

Gaseous products

Gasification can be used to convert solid coal into a gaseous feedstock, which can be used to make a range of other products.

Gasification produces synthesis gas or syngas, a mixture of mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The process can also help with separation of carbon dioxide for use of sequestration.

Victoria has had a long history of brown coal gasification. It provided town gas in the Latrobe Valley before natural gas from Bass Strait became available in the 1960s.

Liquid products

Liquid products from coal can be produced either from syngas via gasification or by the direct liquefaction of brown coal.

Gasification can produce liquid fuel products such as diesel, methanol, fuel gasoline blends, and high octane gasoline extenders.

Liquefaction generally produces lower quality products, such as synthetic crude oil. Further processing may be used to produce fuel oil, diesel, motor fuel blends, kerosene and heating oil. Non-fuel products may also be produced including solvents, polymers, surfactants, lubricants and a suite of other carbon-based chemicals.

Waxes, resins and polymers

A range of waxes may be produced using products derived from brown coal, as well as phenolic resins and plastics, composites, low strength structural and building materials.

Agricultural products

Raw brown coal can be used as a soil conditioner by providing a source of humic acids for potting mixtures and market gardens and as an ad-mixture to other fertilisers and soil conditioners.

Syngas manufactured from coal can be used to produce ammonia, the key pre-cursor to nitrogenous fertilisers such as urea. At present these fertilisers are more commonly made from oil and natural gas based feedstocks.

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Page last updated: 02 Jun 2021