Removing power plant and factory emissions causing the "greenhouse effect" that is warming the Earth is technically possible, but it could double the production cost of electricity in some areas, according to one study.
Coal accounts for a large share of the greenhouse warming because it forms carbon dioxide when burned - all fossil fuels containing carbon do, but coal produces more than others.Carbon dioxide, in turn, accounts for half of the manmade gases that scientists say have warmed the Earth by one degree Fahrenheit over the past century. It will make 1988 the warmest year on record and could add as much as another eight degrees by late in the next century. Such a development would make droughts and heat waves much more frequent in the American Midwest and South.
During a June 23 Senate Energy Committee hearing, a panel of scientists reported that the warming has started. The report especially disturbed coal-state lawmakers such as Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., who said, "I'm trying to find a way to use a resource we have."
Coal accounts for 80 percent of the fossil fuel used to generate electricity in the United States. That generation accounts for 30 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions, and the United States in turn contributes about 30 percent of world carbon dioxide.
No "clean burning" technology can avoid the formation of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels: burning is simply the reaction of carbon with oxygen that transforms both to carbon dioxide.
But carbon dioxide can be "scrubbed" from smokestacks, where it forms about 9 percent to 13 percent of gases from a fossil-fuel power plant.
The higher the concentration, the easier the scrubbing - a fact that Washington consultant Leon Green Jr. made use of in proposing, in general terms, using heat from nuclear fuel to gassify coal and collect carbon dioxide.
One system that has been analyzed more extensively was developed by chemical engineers Hsing C. Cheng and Meyer Steinberg of the Energy Department's Brookhaven, N.Y., National Laboratory. They designed a system using a solvent to dissolve 90 percent of the carbon dioxide out of a plant's exhaust gases.
Cheng and Steinberg envisioned a network of pipelines to carry liquid carbon dioxide from power plants to the ocean or to abandoned oil and gas wells and salt caverns.