HAMMOND | More than four years ago, Purdue University Calumet professor Robert Kramer was approached with a challenge to boost the value of Indiana coal.
"Let's throw away the old molds, and let's try to do something different," Kramer said, recalling a conversation he had with Tom Sparrow, now a retired Purdue professor.
Now, Kramer is leading a research team using a patent-pending process to add value to coke-making and reduce a business' exposure to market volatility. The research base is currently in a lab at the Hammond campus, but the group is searching for funding partners to construct a prototype to capture coke byproducts for further processing.
The effort has close ties to the steel industry and involves retrofitting coke ovens to recover gases emitted through baking coal at certain temperatures. Through further processing, those byproducts may yield marketable products such as diesel fuel, low-quality hydrogen and ammonia sulfate for fertilizer. Electricity also can be produced from a steam turbine operating on the gases and heat extracted from the system.
The state of Indiana extended a two-year grant to the research team worth $100,000 earlier this year. The group already has captured nearly $300,000 in grants.
Kramer said he has received two inquiries, including one from an international company about funding the next phase of research to develop a commercial-scale prototype. Continuing the current research would cost at least $1 million, but he said it's possible it could happen before 2013.
"It's really great," Kramer said. "We're really happy we're getting interest in it."
Kramer said there allso are environmental benefits from capturing coal-baking byproducts. A ton of coal produces about 0.7 tons of coke, plus other gases and tar in the coking process.
"It's a way of adding value to their plant," Kramer said.
The process depends on blending Indiana coals with other higher-value coals to generate coke and the byproducts.
Whether steelmakers are buying coke on the spot market or through contracts, they are sensitive to the market's increased volatility, Kramer said.
Bill Meister, vice president of Marston, a St. Louis-based mining consultancy, said countries such as China and India are helping create the volatility because "they are essentially sucking up the world's market for coking coal."
Kramer said his process could boost market interest for product mined from the Illinois coal basin, which spans north-central Illinois, through southwestern Indiana, and into western Kentucky.
Meister said as steelmaking technology evolved and environmental regulations became more stringent, coal from the Illinois Basin was used less often. In contrast, metallurgical coal mined from the U.S.'s Appalachian region has grown in popularity because of its more desirable properties. Mining companies recovered nearly 36 million tons of coal in Indiana in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Meister said much of the coal has three or four times the sulfur content, and steelmakers have to spend more money to reduce the element's content before finishing the steel.
Kramer also is director of the university's Energy Efficiency and Reliability Center, which helps businesses research and solve energy efficiency and utilization issues. He said the center also is researching how to generate hydrogen gas from biomass material and produce more value from corn ethanol production.