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Clean coal will have a say even in a low carbon world

Centro Ricerche Sotacarbo - Sala conferenze

In the beginning, it was only coal. Nothing else. Nowadays coal is still there, on top of Sotacarbo’s agenda, but not alone anymore. The development of clean coal technologies to reverse the fortunes of the declining coal industry in the Sulcis basin was Sotacarbo’s original mission, as fixed by the Italian Parliament in 1985. Despite the imminent closure of the last Italian coal mine, coal research is still pursued and backed by the Italian government, who rates it strategically and of global interest. A very local and one-way perspective is replaced by a wider one.

Since 2014, the Company, spurred by the Ministry of Economic Development and the Sardinian Region, has expanded its range of study to develop various low carbon technologies, including CCS and CCT – the firm has become the largest national reference for both. Sotacarbo is now involved in a mainly three-way research program, which also includes renewable energy sources and energy efficiency.

“Sustainable energy research centre” describes not only Sotacarbo’s central facility but also the company mission: ‘to study and to develop new technologies able to link environmental and economic sustainability to energy production’. Sotacarbo’s approach is very scientific, pragmatic, not ideological. No crusade for or against any source of energy but only the desire to explore new routes towards a balanced energy mix characterised by zero or near zero emissions. Through technologies like CCS or biomass co-firing, coal can be seen as a low-carbon energy source, which makes it a perfect fit in a low carbon scenario. Cleaner coal could have a decisive impact on the reduction of emissions because technological development is applicable everywhere and the benefit of an adjustment of the coal power fleet is potentially global – not only the Asian continent will benefit.


Sotacarbo has the know-how and the tools to develop technologies capable of tackling many of the climate change issues. Its modern research centre is located on the restored site of the former Serbariu coal mine in Carbonia (Sardinia, Italy). It comprises several laboratories: Carbon to new fuels; Gas and thermal analysis; CO₂ capture through GAIA plant; Ion chromatography.

The centre also has process plants, including a pilot plant equipped with an air-blown fixed-bed gasifier, fed with coal and/or biomass, integrated by some syngas treatment devices (gas washing, desulphurization, water-gas shift conversion and hydrogen purification), designed to combine power generation and CO₂-free hydrogen production. There is also a demonstration plant, which includes an air-blown fixed-bed gasifier fed with coal and/or biomass, a scrubber and a flare. The thermal power of the pilot plant is about 200kW, and the demonstration plant is about 5MW.

Sotacarbo is also studying the pressurised oxy-combustion process fed with coal slurry and is developing several research projects to optimise the pre-combustion and post-combustion CO₂ capture process through experimental tests on a very flexible gasification pilot platform and amine base solvents and membranes. Also underway is the designing of a trial site for CO₂ injection in an underground aquifer, with the aim to develop advanced drilling technologies and on-site monitoring techniques.

The lucky combination of many former coal mines and the unusual geology of the Sulcis basin provides a favourable condition to test where and how CO₂ storage technologies can be developed.

Consistent with a vision of problems and solutions that extend beyond its national borders is the willingness of Sotacarbo to establish partnership worldwide with the best actors in each of its line of research.

In fact, in 1989 the Italian government chose Sotacarbo, a limited public owned company, to represent the country in the IEA Clean Coal Research. This membership allows Italy to get firsthand the most unbiased data and information available in the world of coal – useful to provide competent inputs and advice to its shareholders, ENEA and Sardinia Regional Government. Being part of an independent international organisation of the highest calibre helps Sotacarbo also to boost its ambitious research and outreach programs.

In the last few years, Sotacarbo has developed several collaborations outside Europe, in China and the USA, with leading universities and state of the art research centres, through data sharing and researchers exchange programs. Sotacarbo hosted the 6th International Workshop on Cofiring biomass in September 2016 and will hold the 8th International Conference on Clean Coal Technologies in Italy in May 2017. Events like these are the ideal platform to expand the collaboration field for Sotacarbo and its guests too.

Original article published here: