Climate Change: China Innovating in the Clean Coal Technology Market

September 2008

By Sarah Jessup

While coal is the number one source of energy for a great number of countries, it is highly polluting and generally vilified as a dirty form of power. Many efforts to clean up coal feature innovations in air pollution control and energy waste reduction. In this article Sarah Jessup, PhD, Director of the China Program at the Creative and Innovative Economy Center (CIEC), George Washington University Law School, focuses attention on China’s initiatives to develop clean coal and alternative energy technologies. Ms. Jessup lived for 18 months in coal-intensive Shanxi province conducting field research on the Chinese economic reform process and its impact on political, economic and cultural institutions.

China is regarded as one of the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gas (GHG). It is reported that some 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal, the greatest part of which is burned in outdated power plants that are primary contributors to GHG.1

Coal is still used in most home stoves for cooking and heating as well as by big power companies for generating electricity, using processes that produce high levels of wasted heat. About 86 percent of coal is burned with limited pollution controlling measures; flues are poorly maintained on the few homes that have them.2

A coal delivery bike. Coal is still used in most home stoves for cooking and heating. (Photo: Biran Kelley)

The situation is dire, as reportedly respiratory diseases from air pollution cause more than a million deaths a year, while more than 400,000 avoidable deaths are from indoor air pollution that leads to illnesses such as lung cancer, weakened immune systems and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.3

But there is a potential conflict between environmental protection and economic growth. The country has a population of over one billion and a growth rate of a staggering nine percent a year; however, at least 135 million Chinese survive on less than US$1 a day, and millions more on barely more than that. The Chinese government is making an effort to figure out ways to balance economic progress with cleaner energy.

Are there solutions to tackle the problem without sacrificing economic growth? What kinds of research and development (R&D) are under way to assure a greener future?

Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Despite the serious problems caused by its use, coal is cheap and plentiful and will not be abandoned as an energy source any time soon. It is mined on all continents except for Antarctica. China has recognized the economic potential in developing clean coal technologies for both the foreign and local market. Creating a clean coal technology (CCT) market could possibly balance China’s dual efforts to reduce pollution and maintain economic growth. China’s one-billion strong market would allow a fast learning curve for CCT manufacturing and marketing, which would reduce production costs. China would be in a position to control the market on clean coal technologies if it could invent the right clean coal solutions. Its scientists are already making strides in that direction.

Dr. Li Jinghai holds seven patents in clean coal technology. (Photo: CIEC)

The search for alternative and renewable energy sources drives much science and technology research in China today. The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), a government research administration that maintains numerous research institutes and has partnerships with local and foreign non-governmental organizations and companies, has a strong focus in this area. The push towards clean coal technologies is not driven by environmental regulations as elsewhere but by the promotion of technical policies tied to numerous state incentives. Since 1979, there have been 41 Chinese patents for clean coal technologies. There are 18 locally-developed clean coal technologies presently in use. They range from advanced power generation to pollution control.4

One example is the process for reducing nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon dioxide (CO2) and soot pollution in small facilities developed in 1995 by Dr. Li Jinghai, a CAS chemical engineer at the Institute of Process Engineering (IPE). The NOx-suppressing smokeless coal combustion technique, called Jieou-Technology, received a patent, one of seven patents Dr. Li holds in clean coal technology. The Beijing GW Process Technology Company Ltd. was founded in 2003 to develop and manufacture Dr. Li’s process. The company produces small and medium sized coal-firing boilers for industrial as well as domestic heat and hot water needs.

One of the most serious challenges to alternative energy is in the cement production industry, which has to keep pace with high demand for construction projects. (Photo:

One of the most serious challenges to alternative energy is in the cement production industry, which has to keep pace with high demand for construction projects. In the cement production process, one ingredient, clinker, must be heated to 1450 degrees Celsius (2642 degrees Fahrenheit). Until recently this was done in outdated kilns which had massive energy loss, but this is changing thanks to Tang Jinquan, an engineer and now CEO of Dalian East Energy Development (DEED). He holds five patents in co-generation systems for cement kilns, a procedure he developed which diverts waste heat and redirects it to create power that fuels turbines in the factory. These co-generation systems cut energy used in cement production by 60 percent, most of which is from coal. In 2004, Tang and two partners formed DEED, which now sells co-generation systems throughout China as well as in other countries including Vietnam, India, and Pakistan.5

Forming partnerships

The U. S. has the largest known coal reserves, providing 50 percent of the country’s electricity, more than twice as much as the next highest source, nuclear power. U.S. power plants emit 40 percent of all CO2 emissions in the country. A quarter of the world’s coal is in the U.S. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recognized this year that GHG emissions harm human health, on the basis of a study completed last year. So what better place could the CAS find to form research alliances in CCT?

The University of California in Berkley, Stanford University and numerous other U.S. schools have joint projects with different Chinese institutes. The Western Kentucky University (WKU) has had a long-term partnership with ten different Chinese universities; Chinese scholars come to the U.S. to train for one to five years and return home with exposure to advanced techniques not yet in practice in China.

Professor Pan Weiping, a Taiwanese national, has worked at WKU for 23 years. His emissions control research focuses on several of the many components of coal pollution. Coal pollution contains sulfur dioxide (SO2), NOx (which combine to form particle matter pollution or soot), mercury, air toxins and CO2, a greenhouse gas and the primary global warming pollutant.6 The WKU team’s research on pollution focuses on controlling NOx and SO2, or acid rain, through three existing types of pollution control devices – Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) for NOx emissions, electrostatic precipitators (ESP) for particulate matter emissions and Wet Flue Gas Desulphurization (WFGD), which uses limestone to control SO2. Mercury control research is only just starting in the U.S, as also in China.

In China the focus is on controlling SO2, for which ESP is the only process used at present. According to Professor Pan, in many cases factories have WFGD (to control SO2), but are not using it because adding the limestone is expensive. But now environmental regulations will oblige them to do so. China is catching up in SO2 control, and power plants are now required to have WFGD. 

Importing technology

Chinese energy and environmental policymakers also know the value of importing clean coal technologies as a means of quickly improving local technology.In late 2005, General Electric (GE) Energy invented a coal mine gas engine with a patented process that collects methane gas and turns it into energy. In January 2006, a Chinese mining company bought two of these engines for its mines in Anhui province. Made operational a few months later, the engines enable the Anhui mines to reduce by 85 percent their methane gas emissions, as well as to produce energy.   International inventors of clean coal technology sell their products in China with the expectation that they have the exclusive rights to distribute the technology in all countries.

Fossil fuels will not be abandoned as an energy source any time soon, especially not cheap and plentiful coal. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The future is bright

Market demands are progressively being incorporated into the Chinese process of research and innovation. In China’s emerging politico-economic system, efficient financing and a correspondingly efficient patent system are continuing to develop. Better investment policies will help Chinese public and university researchers to collaborate with the international and domestic private sector, while effective patent rights can facilitate R&D collaboration agreements. China’s expanding patent system is playing an important role in encouraging the deployment and development of innovative CCT, especially as intellectual property rights are strengthened. The technologies that emerge from these partnerships can one day be an important part of reducing the pollution problems of coal-based energy.


China Award Winner for Sustainable Energy Inventions

There are many individual inventors and innovators in China working on a smaller scale and successfully patenting environmental products such as biomass stoves. Three of these inventors have won the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, the U.K.’s green energy awards given to an invention by an individual or institution that helps reduce GHGs.

In 2006 an award went to the Shaanxi Mother’s Environmental Protection Volunteer Association, a group that developed a biogas stove using pig and human waste for cooking and lighting. Led by Wang Mingying, the group was set up in 1997 by the Shaanxi Women’s Federation. Professor Qiu Ling at Northwest Forest and Agriculture University developed the stove. Over 1,294 have been sold since 1999.

Other Ashden Awards-winning inventions include the 2007 crop waste and wood stove, developed by PanShijiao. Research was started in 2000, and the Beijing Shenzhou Daxu Bio-energy Technology Company Ltd. was established in 2005 to commercialize the stove. In 2008, a solar powered system from the “Renewable Energy Development Project” (REDP), led by Luo Xinlian and Wang Wei, won an award. Established in 2001, REDP aimed to set up off-the-grid solar power in rural areas in west and northwest China where there are few people, most of whom are engaged in animal herding work. The project, a combined effort of the state planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the World Bank, installed 400,000 systems between 2004 and 2008, many subsidized to customers through an REDP program.


1. Xin Lu, Zhufang Yu, Linxin Wu, Jie Yu, Guifeng Chen, Maohong Fan. 2008. “Policy Study on Development and Utilization of Clean Coal Technology in China.” Fuel Processing Technology 89: 474-484. Yu Dawei. “China Holds Its Breath for Clean Coal Power”, April 30, 2008, Caijing, accessed July 7, 2008.
2. Lu Zhi, Michael Totten, and Philip Chou. 2006. “Spurring Innovations for Clean Energy and Water Protection: An Opportunity to Advance Security and Harmonious Development.” China Environment Series. China Environment Forum. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: 61-84, p. 62; Junfeng (Jim) Zhang and Kirk R. Smith. “Household Air Pollution from Coal and Biomass Fuels in China: Measurements, Health Impacts, and Interventions.” Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 115, No. 6, June 2007; Minchener, Andrew J. “Coal in China.” Energeia. Vol. 16. No. 5, 2005. University of Kentucky, Center for Applied Energy Research, p. 2.
3. Zhang and Smith. 2007. 
4. Xin Lu 2008.
5. James Fallows. “China’s Silver Lining.” Atlantic Monthly. June 2008. Jung-Myung Cho and Suzanne Giannini Spohn. “Environmental and Health Threats from Cement Production in China.” China Environmental Forum. A China Environmental Health Research Brief. August 30, 2007
6. Sierra Club, “Dirty Coal Power.”

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.