Illinois geological discovery leads to new industry

CHAMPAIGN—A discovery and application of new technology developed at the Illinois State Geological Survey, a division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, has led to recovery of coal dust previously wasted in the mining process.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, through the Illinois Clean Coal Institute, funded five years of research resulting in this new technology for recovering and dewatering fine coal.

“This is good news for the mining industry and for the environment,” said DNR Director Joel Brunsvold. “The impact of this discovery can’t be underestimated. It is the groundwork to create an entirely new type of business. The implications go even beyond enhancing the Illinois coal industry.”

Another benefit of the discovery is a portion of the profits from patents goes to the University of Illinois and to the Illinois State Geological Society.

“At a time of tight finances in the state of Illinois, this is a great enhancement for state coffers,” said Brunsvold. “We benefit not just from the economic benefit to industry, but from the profit from the patents because of research the state was able to sanction—research that might otherwise not have been done.”

The new developments involve the process known in the mining industry as froth flotation. In the past, as much as 20 percent of coal has been lost as coal fines, or dust, usually wasted in a slurry of water. This technology makes it possible to clean incombustible ash from fine coal, separate and concentrate metallic ores, and even remove pollutants from contaminated soils. The discoveries came under the research leadership of Latif Kahn, Ph.D.

“There is actually a set of three technologies at work here. At the root of this process is the principle that particles will either stick to the bubbles in a froth, or remain behind in a slurry of solid particles and liquid,” said Dr. Kahn.

“We use that principle in creating high-velocity water jets to form a froth that separates product from the waste. It involves a motorless, rotorless cell capped with an included washer to separate the fine coal from mineral matter. Added to that is an automated filtering system that expresses the water out of the froth, forming a nearly dry product that can be sold.”

The commercial potential for the discovery was tapped in 2004, when the Illinois State Geological Survey team who developed this system was approached by MHI, a venture capitalist group interested in moving the technologies to full commercialization. Dynamic Separations Inc. (DSI) was formed and is cooperating with the ISGS on field demonstrations, currently being funded by the Illinois Clean Coal Institute, as well as pursuing other commercial ventures.

“These technologies could improve the economics of coal preparation and increase the profit margin for Illinois coal mines,” said Bill Hoback, Bureau Chief for the Illinois Office of Coal Development. ICCI is an arm of the Office of Coal Development of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

“Support from the Illinois Clean Coal Institute has been indispensable in the development of the technologies, “ said Bill Shilts, Ph.D., Chief of the Illinois Geological Society.

Under terms of the exclusive license awarded to Dynamic Separations by the University, university regulations specify that the revenues paid to the university be shared, with 40 percent going to the inventors (Dr. Khan et al.), 40 percent to the university and 20 percent to the inventors’ administrative unit—the ISGS.

From the fall of 1996 to the present, the ICCI has funded 12 different research projects at the ISGS to support the development of the three technologies.

The ICCI provided almost $1.8 million, the ISGS iteself contributed $566,000, and partners such as American Coal Company, Freeman Energy, Consol Energy and Dynamic Separations have so far contributed a little over $400,000.

Among the 50 state geological surveys in the United States, the ISGS is unique in supporting a group of highly qualified engineers to carry out research and develop technologies to solve coal and other energy-related problems. The engineering work began more than 65 years ago when the ISGS built the Applied Research Laboratory, across the street from Abbott Power plant, and began studying the coking properties of Illinois coals.

Since its inception in 1905, the ISGS has been forming partnerships with industry and with other government agencies, providing them with the geological expertise they need to improve the economy, overcome environmental problems and avoid geological hazards.

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