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Coal-to-gas venture GreatPoint heads to China

GreatPoint Energy has a technology that will make coal a lot less polluting by turning it into natural gas. Its first demonstration plant will be in coal-rich China.

If your mission is to make coal less polluting, China is a good place to start.

GreatPoint Energy, a start-up with technology to convert coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, expects to open a demonstration plant in China in three years.

The plant would cost between $100 million and $200 million and be located at a coal-fired power plant operated by Datang Huanyin Electric Power. Most of the financing for the plant will come from Datang, one of the biggest single polluters on the planet, according to GreatPoint Energy CEO Andrew Perlman.

GreatPoint Energy's pilot facility in Somerset, Mass. GreatPoint Energy

Although GreatPoint Energy's business is focused on fossil fuels, the company was founded by environmentalists intent on tackling climate change.

In its demonstration plant in China, GreatPoint's technology will convert 1,500 tons of coal a day into natural gas, according to Perlman.

China is rapidly constructing more domestically supplied coal plants to meet swelling electricity demand, contributing to air pollution problems and rapid growth in the country's carbon emissions.

"If we can show (Datang) that they can make more money being clean rather than dirty, then we can make a real impact," says Perlman.

GreatPoint's hydromethanization process, being used in pilot facilities in Massachusetts and Illinois, passes coal or other carbon-heavy feedstock through a chute where it is treated with a metal catalyst and steam.

The material is then gasified in a chamber, which creates carbon dioxide and methane, the main ingredient in natural gas. The methane is then cleaned and the catalyst recuperated for use again. The process can work with petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil extraction from tar sands, or plant biomass.

The end product--natural gas--is a lot cleaner to burn than coal and can be transported through existing pipelines. Other chemicals in the coal, including nitrogen and sulfur, can be separated and sold for industrial use, according to Perlman.

But GreatPoint Energy's process also creates carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. To keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the company plans to build its plants in places where it can be pumped underground to get more oil out of existing wells, a technique already done in the oil and gas industry.

Overall, GreatPoint's process can produce natural gas at between $4 and $5 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), which is in the range of today's prices but a lot lower than natural gas prices before the global recession hit.

Cleaner fossil fuels?
Many entrepreneurs interested in green technologies have gravitated toward solar power, which still garners the most venture capital compared to other segments, or IT-related fields like smart-grid tech.

But Perlman argues that renewable energy sources, which represent less than 3 percent of power generation in the U.S., cannot be ramped up fast enough to make a significant impact on cleaning up power generation.

"The problem with renewables is that realistically they may not get us to where we need to go. Coal has to realistically be in the mix and realistically be a big part of the mix," he said at last month's AlwaysOn GoingGreen East conference, where GreatPoint Energy was picked as the top green business.

The company is pursuing other coal plants in China and the U.S. Following its demonstration facility with Datang, it hopes to build a full-scale plant, which would cost $1 billion, Perlman said.

"China is tremendously short on natural gas. They are going to have to use more natural gas if they are going to clean the environment and address their air problems," he said.

GreatPoint Energy CEO Andrew Perlman at GoingGreen East conference in Boston. Martin LaMonica/CNET