In keeping with President Carter's commitment to coal as the energy source of the future, Georgetown University will build a $14 million power plant that will burn cheap, high sulfur coal with great efficiency and a minimum of pollution.
Construction will begin after the District's Board of Zoning Adjustment approves Georgetown's master development plan, which the university hopes will come before the end of April. The project will be under a contract from the Energy Research and Development Administration.
William A. Miller, vice president for planning and physical plant at Georgetown said the potentially revolutionary steam-producing facility that it would bet he univeristy's main energy source.
The system was developed by the New York engineering firm of Pope. Evans and Robbins, which has operated an experimental plant in Alexandria since 1967. Energy generated by this plant at Union and Franklin Streets is not used for any purpose except experimentation.
ERDA, according to program manager William Harvey, already has committed "in excess of $50 million" to developing the system. That investment has been matched by corporations and private institutions such as Exxon and the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Georgetown is paying $4 million toward its plant.
The first high-output plant using the system, which is known as atmospheric fluidized bed coal combustion, is about to go into operation in Riversville, W. Va. It will be part of the Allegheny power grid serving western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia.
The process works by forcing crushed coal throughs preheated bed of pulverized limestone. The limestone ignites the coal, which boils the water or heats the air, depending on what kind of heat is desired.
The limestone traps the sulfur in the coal, thereby eliminating a major source of pollution enabling the system to meet both local and federal pollution standards. Theprocess produces a solid residue that can be converted to gypsum and used as a soil conditioner, to make wall board or for road beds.
Both Harvey and Michael Pope, developer of the process, said that yesrs of experiments in Alexandria indicated that the system would produce energy at a lower cost and more efficiently than either oil or natura gas. But Harvey cautioned that no one can say tht with absolute certainty until it is tested on a commercial scale.
The Alexandria unit, whose bed is 10 square feet, produces 5,000 pounds of steam an hour. Georgetown's plant will turn out 100,000 pounds an hour using a 444-square-foot bed. The Rivesville plant will turn out 300,000 pounds an hour.
Harvey cited several potential drawbacks, including a question as to whether sale of the waste would be commercially feasible. Pope says the answer is yes, but it has yet to be demonstrated.
Harvey also said it was uncertain how the system would operate at less than its peak. Georgetown, whose maximum power needs are 140,000 pounds an hour, does not always need the full 100,000 pounds the new plant will produce.
Pope said, however, that it would "turn down to 35,000 pounds with no difficulty."
Another problem, Harvey said, is conveying, storing and especially crushing the coal. Coal-crushing technology, he indicated, is not highly developed.
The process also operates with relatively low heat - 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit - to avoid forming another major pollutant, nitrous oxide, which begins forming at 1,650 degrees. That limits its use in some manufacturing processes.
Georgetown became interested in the system, according to Miller, because "we get dropped off the line when the gas company can't supply us; we saw the price of oil going out of sight and we needed another boiler."
Georgetown's present heating system can be fueled by either gas or oil. The new system, according to Pope, will burn "anything, wood chips, lignite, even garbage." The mot practical fuel, however, seems to be high-sulfur coal, which is plentiful in the East and is about $10 a ton cheaper than cleaner-burning low-sulfur coal.
Most of the institutions that have contracted to build fluidized bed systems - so called because the coal and limestone particles are forced through the bed at such high speed that they behave like fluids - will use them to either heat air or water.
Exxon, however, plans to heat petroleum as part of the crude-oil refining process. Other potential applications are paint drying, cement making and dog-food processing.