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Researchers at the University of Utah will soon be using the world's biggest super­computers to simulate and test a new type of low-emission coal-fired power plant.

"We're going to be building the biggest simulations ever done in the world," said U. chemical engineering professor Philip Smith, who will use the grant to establish the Carbon Capture Multidisciplinary Simulation Center with Martin Berzins and U. President David Pershing, a professor of chemical engineering by training.

The simulation written at the U. will be tested on an exascale computer with millions of processors, expected to be completed within the next three years.

The five-year, $16 million grant from the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration will fund software designed to simulate and predict the performance of a 350-megawatt boiler system capable of electrifying a midsize city. Designed by the multinational corporation Alstom, the plant would use a technology called oxy-combustion, in which coal dust is ignited using pure oxygen rather than air.

"Most experts in this area believe [oxy-combustion] to be the cheapest option for being able to capture carbon," said Smith. The process leaves behind water vapor and pure carbon dioxide, which is easier to capture and store. Several plants are piloting parts of the technology around the world, and a large-scale test project is underway in Illinois, funded by $1 billion in stimulus money, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. The U.'s work will bring the first large-scale simulation to the concept of an entire plant built with the technology. The project will involve 20 faculty members, 20 research staff and 40 students.

Creating a cheap, practical solution for cutting emissions from coal-fired plants has bedeviled the power industry as it tries to meet federal limits on carbon emissions.

Environmentalists, though, questioned whether the new method the U. is testing can change that.

"We've been hearing about the myth of clean coal for quite a few years now. The truth is as those technologies have moved forward they've either contributed to a rise in the levels of pollution or they've turned out to be wildly expensive," said Matt Pacenza, policy director at HEAL Utah. "Maybe this is the one that's actually clean and affordable and transformative, but I think everyone should be skeptical."

Tim Wagner, national organizing staff for the Sierra Club in Salt Lake City, questioned whether the money would be better spent researching new, alternative energy sources — even if the process works to reduce emissions, coal is still a finite resource. "It's unfortunate that we're taking university resources and Department of Energy resources to invest in [a] research program to make coal clean, which it never will be," he said. "Every dollar we spend ... is a dollar that doesn't go toward researching or investing in a clean energy project."

But, for Smith, it's worth finding a method to make coal — which still powers 40 percent of the country's electricity needs — more environmentally friendly.

"The world needs cheap, clean energy," Smith said. "For decades, the cheapest source of energy has been coal. ... I'm certainly not against wind or hydropower. Yes to all of the above, but we shouldn't reject those that are present right now."

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which is funding the grant, became active in the field known as predictive science after the U.S. signed the nuclear-test-ban treaty and computer simulations allowed engineers to virtually test and manage nuclear weapons. The U. has previously done 13-year-long simulation studies of accidental fires and explosions, funded by the NNSA.

"Computing and simulation is a very, very young branch of science," Smith said. Oxy-combustion "has never been simulated to the degree of accuracy we're looking at now. It is so complex, it has never been dealt with before."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst