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ND, Australia sharing info on low-grade coal

BISMARCK — North Dakota and Australia claim the world's biggest caches of proven lignite reserves, and industry groups from both places have agreed to share information on how to reduce emissions and increase efficiencies at factories that use the plentiful but low-grade coal.

The Lignite Energy Council said it formed a partnership late last month with Melbourne-based Brown Coal Innovation Australia. An agreement signed by the groups said the intent is to “harness their complimentary resources and expertise to develop and pursue cooperative activities associated with coal.”

“We're working to keep lignite a vital energy fuel for the future,” said Steve Van Dyke, a spokesman for the Bismarck-based group.

North Dakota state geologist Ed Murphy said there are 150 billion tons of proven lignite reserves worldwide. Only Australia, with 37 billion tons of proven lignite reserves, has more than North Dakota's 25 billion tons.

Lignite is sometimes called brown coal and is usually geologically younger than other coals, Murphy said. Lignite can contain up 30 to 60 percent water, making it inefficient to burn and heavier and more costly to transport. Drier coal creates more energy and lessens the amount of power needed to process and burn it, reducing pollution from factory stacks.

North Dakota has seven coal-fueled electric power plants and a factory that produces synthetic natural gas from lignite coal. The state's lignite mines in west-central North Dakota produce close to 30 million tons of fuel annually.

Almost 70 percent of electricity produced from North Dakota's lignite-fired power plants is exported to surrounding states to more than 2 million customers, Van Dyke said.

There are about 280 power plants in the U.S. that burn lignite and other high-moisture coal, and those factories generate about a third of the electricity produced by all coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Van Dyke said there are no large-scale lignite factories that have successfully developed efficient devices to capture carbon dioxide emissions that are blamed for global warming.

“Cost-effective, commercial technology does not exist,” Van Dyke said.

Lignite industries in the U.S. and Australia are actively developing low-emission, low-cost technologies that could be shared, he said.

Mike Jones, vice president of research and development for the Lignite Energy Council, said a delegation of engineers and researchers from the U.S. will be traveling to Australia to review projects in the country, and vice versa.

“There are areas to cooperate and collaborate ... to meet the future needs of our industry,” Jones said.Follow James MacPherson on Twitter at