GreatPoint Previews Demo Facility for Coal-to-Gas Technology

In the shadow of the New England’s largest coal-fired power plant, the Brayton Point station in Somerset, MA, Governor Deval Patrick presided yesterday over a ceremony heralding a future in which coal can be inexpensively converted into cleaner-burning natural gas before being used to generate electricity.

The ceremony marked an agreement between Cambridge-based clean-energy startup GreatPoint Energy and Richmond, VA, utility Dominion, which owns Brayton Point, to construct a $25 million coal-gasification demonstration plant on the plant’s grounds, near Fall River. The project will create at least 100 new jobs in the area and will give GreatPoint a permanent headquarters in Massachusetts, according to the company.

GreatPoint is working to commercialize gasification reactors where high-pressure steam is used to pulverize coal into tiny particles. The particles are then exposed to a proprietary catalyst that breaks them down into a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane (natural gas).

“Over the past year, we’ve spent 1,400 hours operating a pilot facility in Des Plaines, Illinois, testing various feedstocks to prove our technology to convert coal, biomass, and petroleum coke waste into pipeline-quality natural gas,” says Dan Goldman, GreatPoint’s chief financial officer. “So we know the process works. This facility we’re planning to build in Somerset is a demonstration facility and R&D center. It will be our home for the next 15-odd years, where we’ll work on improving the technology.”

Construction of the demonstration plant and R&D facility is expected to take 12 months. “We will use the lab to investigate improvements to the catalytic process, and then use the demonstration gasification facility to do test runs,” Goldman says. The company, which is currently based in the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, also hopes to transplant its corporate headquarters to the facility, he says.

“GreatPoint is a leading example of a Massachusetts-based company that is poised to bring a potentially game-changing energy technology into the commercial market,” said Ian Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs, in a press release about the Dominion agreement. “I’m very pleased that their next phase of development will happen here in the Commonwealth, at Brayton Point.”

The company, which last month rounded up $100 million in Series C funding last month—the nation’s second-largest venture financing of the third quarter—is also working on finding a site for a much larger pilot facility where it hopes to demonstrate that its gasification works on a commercial scale. It’s unlikely that facility will be in Massachusetts, since the company plans to sequester the carbon dioxide generated in the gasification process by pumping it underground. Depleted oil fields are the best place to do that, says Goldman, and Massachusetts doesn’t have many of those.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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