Clean-up man

With the environment a top priority, Ragi Panesar’s goal is to cut the level of emissions from conventional energy sources by developing clean coal technology. Julia Pierce reports.

While sustainable ways of generating energy such as fusion power are making headlines, innovative work is also being carried out to ensure existing power generation methods have a minimal impact on the environment.

One person undertaking this task is Ragi Panesar, group leader in the boiler performance division at Doosan Babcock’s Renfrew facility in Scotland. He joined the energy industry and Doosan Babcock 17 years ago after leaving Paisley University, where he studied mechanical engineering. Since 2000, his role has centred on developing clean coal technology.

‘This is a very exciting time for the coal industry,’ he said. ‘Clean coal technology is something that is needed in the very near-term future. The UK is facing a potential 20GW energy gap yet needs to cut its carbon emissions. Worldwide, climate change is at the top of the political agenda and a lot of money is being spent on it, so I am working in the industry at a critical time.’

Panesar was attracted to the energy industry as it allowed him to practise what he studied. His first role included building test-scale plants. ‘The idea of continuing with mechanical engineering appealed to me,’ he said. ‘I wanted to do some experimental work and get plenty of hands-on experience. This introduced me to the practical aspects of research and development.’

He then became involved in Doosan Babcock’s research into cutting nitrogen monoxide emissions. ‘This took me to power stations across the UK and in South Africa, Hong Kong and China. It’s a long way from just sitting in an office. Instead, I met customers to see what their problems were.’

More recently he has been presenting the company’s clean coal findings at conferences in Canada, Norway and the US. ‘I have met many people working within the same field,’ said Panesar. ‘It is almost like a small family in that we are a group of likeminded people with the same concerns about climate change and a wish to do something about it.’

Working within the sector has allowed him to produce data that has been fed into government policy. ‘I work closely with our quality liaison director, who has been answering to the government’s Energy Review. He has been putting the case for clean coal technology. I have also become involved in a number of major collaborative projects funded by the DTI and the EC.’ This includes the design of a carbon-abated Advanced Supercritical Coal boiler plant with CO2 capture options, which will allow countries to use coal in a clean and efficient manner.

Some of this work may sound similar to academic research, but Panesar said there are fundamental differences. The most important is his focus on the practical, and also on the needs and desires of his market, ensuring any new technology appeals to its users.

‘Our clean coal system will be the evolution of a current technology rather than a radical solution. It is the best way to get things into the market as radical solutions can be rejected as too risky,’ he said.

It is not just about building new technology — Panesar has also found himself dealing with legislation, public opinion, and even international relations. ‘We are looking at carbon capture but there is also a need for transport and storage,’ he said. ‘There are still legalities to go through regarding where it can be stored and we are waiting for the legal framework.

‘We need to work on public awareness. This could provide an option for carbon abatement that would let people go about maintaining their current lifestyle without damaging the environment. This is particularly important in developing countries reliant on coal for power that want to be able to access the same lifestyle as developed countries. We could let this happen with minimal environmental impact.’

The downside of being in such a fast-moving industry is having too little time, he said. But this also has its advantages. ‘The reason I have stayed in the industry is because I have never become bored,’ said Panesar. ‘Bringing innovation to the technical side could make a real change to energy generation, and ultimately to how we all live.’