Mushrooms have been described as “meat for vegetarians,” a fungus high in protein that can be fried, baked or eaten raw. Now a scientist born in Taiwan and working in the United States thinks they could help to protect the environment for pollutants formed by burning coal.
Prof. Wei-Ping Pan has spent a lifetime studying the science of how things burn and the smoke they emit. He specialised in fossil fuels and taught at Western Kentucky University where he is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry.
According to Prof. Pan’s research, enzymes from mushrooms could reduce the emission from coal-fired power plants.
He suggests that coal which has been treated with water in which the enzymes from almost any species of mushroom has been grown, will burn more efficiently and produce dramatically fewer pollutants. The treated coal also burns more efficiently which results in lower coal usage for the same electrical output.
Prof. Pan suggests that the water should be sprayed onto the coal as it falls down the chute into a storage hold from where it is taken into the power station’s furnace to feed the fire which produces superheated steam to drive a steam turbine which, in turn, drives an alternator to generate electricity.
This proposal is not merely speculative. Practical tests have been conducted which prove the benefits of this concept.
Born in Taipei, Prof. Pan has lectured in several countries and was invited to replicate his Kentucky laboratory at the North China Electric Power University in Beijing, a project that is now complete.
He received his original degree in chemical engineering from Chung Yuan University in Taiwan and took a doctorate in physical chemistry at Michigan Technological University in 1986.
Motivation for the study
China is the world’s worst polluter, producing more CO2 than the next four countries combined including Russia, India and the USA.
South Africa comes in at 15, sandwiched between Australia and the UK. Eskom generates more than 90% its electrical output from fossil fuel. When the new Kusile power station in Mpumalanga goes on line at a cost of R120-billion, it will rank among the biggest coal-fired power generating plants in the world.
Between them, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Ghana have more than 50-billion t of coal reserves underground and Prof. Pan says he hopes his discovery will be used in Africa where more than 600-million people still live off the grid.
He has offered to deliver his lectures in Johannesburg and Cape Town, he says, adding that a delegation from Nairobi has already been to visit his laboratory in Kentucky.
Clean coal technology
In the US, President Donald Trump has pledged to spend heavily on clean-coal technology and recently reversed a ban preventing the World Bank from funding coal-based power plants. Washington is the largest funder of both the World Bank and IMF.
Using carbon-capture technology, where CO2 and other emissions are filtered off, the US hopes to maintain its commitment to global warming with a so-called “coal-based climate-change plan.”
In Australia, the world’s top coal exporter, this system is known as “high efficiency low emission” or HELE. Canberra is already using the HELE plan at home to make electricity.
Opportunities and challenges for mushroom farmers
Mushroom farmers in the US and China hope Prof. Pan’s discovery may boost their sales. But that is not as easy as it sounds, according to Ross Richardson who chairs the South African Mushroom Farmers’ Association.
According to Richardson, South Africa grows around 20 500 t of mushrooms per year from both small and large scale producers. Richardson says that for a farm to be economically viable, it needs to produce between 8 and 10 t of mushrooms. This is naturally easier for large producers to accomplish, he said.
The challenge in building a broad-based mushroom sector lies in the set-up cost, and creating sterile conditions that, ironically, a fungus needs in order to thrive.
The initial capital required could be in the region of R2-million per t, according to Richardson. This means that an investor would need between R16- and R20-million to set up a viable farm.
Richardson says the alternative would be for people in rural areas to harvest wild mushrooms, but some of the species are poisonous and handling large quantities without protective clothing could be dangerous.
A new hybrid mushroom which can be grown by small-scale farmers in a confined space without the normal sterile conditions is apparently being tested at a university in Nairobi.
With the extraction of an enzyme from mushrooms, Prof. Pan says the benefits could be vast in regions like Africa and India where the use of coal is still widely used.
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