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Published: Tuesday, 7/6/2004

Time to mine an idea

SCIENTISTS and inventors in northwest Ohio are creative and develop wonderful ideas that could have a national impact on health, energy, the environment, and other fields. All too often, however, federal research funding to advance their work passes over this area like a jetliner at 35,000 feet.

We see the vapor trails, but the payload lands elsewhere.

From that standpoint alone, it was gratifying to see that Bowling Green inventor Albert Calderon got substantial time last week with a high-ranking U.S. Department of Energy official in Washington.

Mr. Calderon made a pitch for DOE funding of a $250 million demonstration facility for converting coal into gasoline and other fuels, a plant that would be built near Bowling Green.

Coal has great potential as a secure, abundant domestic energy source. There is proven technology for converting coal into synthetic "natural gas" and liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel.

Early in the 20th century, for instance, more than 20,000 coal gasification plants in the United States produced fuel gas for domestic heating and cooking and industrial heating. Germany used coal liquefaction technology during World War II to make most of its gasoline, diesel fuel, and aviation fuel.

The 1970s energy crunch revived interest in coal conversion technology. Commercial and demonstration coal conversion plants are chugging away today in the United States and elsewhere.

Ohio certainly has coal to convert. Located in one of the largest coal fields in the U.S., Ohio boasts an estimated 11.6 billion tons of easily recoverable coal reserves. The Port of Toledo, of course, is one of the world's largest shippers of soft coal.

That word "soft" is important. Ohio's coal is the kind with a high-sulfur content, which causes heavy air pollution. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations make Ohio coal less attractive to electric utilities.

Mr. Calderon's particular coal conversion process would use Ohio coal cleanly, emitting few pollutants. He previously received $13.4 million in DOE funding to test the process in a prototype facility near Alliance. The City of Bowling Green is a strong supporter of the new facility.

The project seems like a natural for federal funding and for Ohio. It is not a pipe dream, but based on long-proven technology. Mr. Calderon is a pioneer in clean coal technology. It would expand use of Ohio coal, has strong local support, and could ease America's dependence on imported petroleum.

U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) played a key role as facilitator, and helped arrange Mr. Calderon's presentation to DOE. If the project is as good as it seems, Mr. DeWine's role can expand.

When a federal agency must choose between equally worthy projects in different geographic regions, support from an influential member of Congress may tip the scale, and land the funding for their own districts or states.

Securing more research and development funding should be a top priority for Ohio's congressional delegation, especially here in northwest Ohio.

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