Johannesburg — THIS week, experts in Washington praised a little-known laboratory in Johannesburg (South Africa) that has pioneered ways of burning coal with less emission.
Professor Rosemary Falcon heads the Clean Coal Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits.
There, she leads a team of chemists, engineers and other scientists along with 20 masters and doctoral students who say they have proved conclusively that clean coal is not only possible, but among the cheapest ways to generate electricity on a continent where more than 600 million Africans live without power.
"It starts by understanding that each region has a different recipe of minerals," Dr Falcon said. "If you give me a lump of coal out of Kenya, the US, Europe or China, I can probably tell you where it's from."
"An industrial boiler from Europe, fed with South African coal, will melt because our product burns so hot. But we also have more ash that actually absorbs heat making the fire less efficient. So one of the first steps is to alter the coal before you light the fire. Or build a boiler specifically for each country."
Her husband, Lionel, a retired engineer, lends his know-how from years in business and industry.
Working with Falcon is Dr Nandi Malumbuzo who took her PhD in chemical engineering at Wits.
"In Africa, the use of coal is growing and that's something we have to deal with," she says. "The challenge is to burn it more cleanly and this starts at the mine with techniques we've developed to separate poor quality coal from the better stuff that is already less toxic.
"You then crush it and remove elements that will not contribute to a good burn. Like unleaded petrol, you're starting from a better place. Less ash, less fumes, more heat and a longer burn.
"From there we've done experiments and written up peer-reviewed research to show we can use it way cleaner than in most countries, reducing some emissions to zero."
In Washington, Barry Worthington, director of the United States Energy Association, said the South African research was "vital in the move to a cleaner and better use of coal."
It was tempting, he said, "to believe the answers always come from Europe or America, when others may be ahead of us in the field."
Former White House energy advisor, George David Banks, said it was "time to unite" those working on clean coal across all six continents.
"We need to locate the research schools, like this one in Johannesburg, and bring them together," he said. "The world is not going to stop using fossil fuel any time soon, but we can do it so much better."
Mr Worthington said he would like to see Prof Falcon and her team on a speaking tour in Washington. "I think people need to hear what's happening elsewhere," he said. "The debate has become too political and we need a more objective view."
But, for all its ground-breaking work, South Africa's clean-coal is in trouble.
"Funding has been difficult," said Falcon. "We have to scrape and beg for every cent. We are passionate about the work, and there's still a lot to do, but the money is not always there."
The Wits research has also drawn praise from across the continent. Dr Samson Bada from Nigeria has joined the team along with Dr Jacob Masiala from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both are engineers, working on ways to get the lights on in Africa and keep the air clean.
The faculty has post-graduate staff and students from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique and receives queries from around the world.
"If we mix pulverized coal with bamboo, something that grows well in Africa, we take emissions down even further," said Dr Masiala. "Of course, a bamboo plantation also gives you carbon credits, and we can grow it on old mine sites to rehabilitate the ground. It's a winner on so many fronts."
Falcon has given lectures at prestigious schools like Cambridge University in England, Nandi Malumbuzo has been to Germany, Australia and the Philippines. Bada and Masiala have delivered papers in the US, Norway and Italy.
The use of coal to generate electricity in Africa is at a record high. South Africa gets more than 90 per cent of its power from coal, in Botswana its 100 per cent, both Kenya and Tanzania are building new coal-fired generators and Zimbabwe is retooling its plant south of Victoria Falls.
Samson Bada has little time for those who condemn this.
"I am so tired of being lectured by people in rich countries who have never lived a day without electricity," he said. "Maybe they should just go home and turn off their fridge, geyser, their laptops and lights. Then live like that for a month and tell us, who have suffered for years, not to burn coal."
Jacob Masiala agrees. "Aid groups come to Africa and give out solar lamps the size of a pumpkin," he said. "But no one in London or Los Angeles would be willing to make do with that as their only source of electricity"
He said the coming revolution in Africa was not about land, religion or politics, but a lack of jobs.
"Don't tell me that China, Russia and the West should have electricity and black people in Mali or Mozambique should live in huts with light from a solar toy. We need power for factories and to run schools and hospitals.
"Africa is urbanising faster than anywhere on the planet. And our urban youth are on the same Facebook and Whatsapp as kids in Chicago. They watch the same *Big Bang Theory* on TV and have the same aspirations."
Millions of school leavers, he said, could read and do algebra but had no work. And the lack of industry, he said was linked to electricity.
Dr Bada said he was a fan of wind and solar, but the technology was not yet there to industrialise a continent. "Solar doesn't work at night, and turbines stand idle when the wind doesn't blow.
"How do you run an operating theatre with that, let alone a city?"
Other countries, he said, needed a massive jump in the amount of power they generate. "Tanzania, for example, has around 70 per cent of its people still short of electricity while it sits on four billion tons of coal. And still we hear activists from wealthy countries chanting, 'Leave it in the ground.'
"Electricity in Africa is not just an ethical issue, it is key to security and growth. And the rich world ignores that at its peril."
If there is one thing that angers everyone at the faculty, it's those who say clean coal is a myth.
Dr Falcon said they were either in denial or unaware of the truth. "Tell me there's no such thing as unleaded petrol or fat-free yoghurt and maybe I'll hear you out when you chant: 'There's no such thing as clean coal.'
"In our lab, we have clean coal, provable, peer-reviewed and with experiments that can be replicated anywhere."
The science, she said was there. "Clean coal is a reality. And now we must start using it now to make a better world."