China, US sign agreement to spur clean coal research

August 22, 2011

From Scientific American:

U.S. and Chinese officials heading up a series of joint advanced coal projects Friday signed an intellectual property agreement meant to ease the sharing of innovative technology while protecting patents and licensing agreements.

Companies collaborating on research and development projects tied to the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), a program started in 2009, can enter into regular commercial contracts. But energy technology companies participating in the U.S.-China program must negotiate licenses “in good faith” to ensure both nations benefit.

Inventors of technology can set the terms, according to a description of the agreement, including royalties and limits on the use of an invention. But the terms cannot be so restrictive that they in essence bar the sharing of advanced coal technology by the United States and China.

Clean coal technology would be an energy game changer.  Like all fossil fuels, coal is plentiful, (relatively) cheap and energy dense.   However, also like all fossil fuels, it is a highly polluting energy source.  The key to maximizing the coal resource lies in capturing and either sequestering or utilizing the emissions.  The United States has far and away the world’s largest reserves of coal, while China has the third largest, and the two nations are also the world’s largest coal burners.  While in the US, coal plants are shutting down due to a combination of environmental and economic pressure (from cheap, abundant natural gas), they remain a major source of electricity.  Meanwhile, China is engaged in a 10 year project to build 500 new coal fired plants – about 1 per week.

Coal is a crucial part of the world energy mix.  Making it cleaner and more efficient would relieve ecological pressure and turn it into an even more powerful economic resource.  US companies would not only license the new technology, others could become energy exporters to the coal hungry developing nations of the world.  This agreement can be a very important development, although it is curious that such a pact would be signed in West Virginia instead of China, where the US Vice President Joe Biden is currently touring.  Seems like a missed political opportunity to me.



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