FOCUS: Tempura technology upgrades low-quality Indonesian brown coal.
Takuo Shigehisa loves cooking. And tempura is one of his favorite dishes.
But the 53-year-old never expected that his love of cooking would lead him to discover a technology that applies the same principle that makes tempura crispy to transform low-grade Indonesian brown coal into a grade that can be used for electrical power generation.
Shigehisa made his discovery in 1993 after doing some experiments on how to reduce water content in brown coal.
First, he boiled the coal in salty water, but the process just melted the coal, mixed it with the water and left a black mess.
Then, he tried deep-frying coal in kerosene.
Instead of mixing or melting in the kerosene, it turned ''crispy'' and useful.
''As the coal doesn't melt, the kerosene can be reused again and again to fry the coal,'' he said.
The experimenting, however, did not make people around him very happy.
''My family complained a lot about my experiments because of the heavy smoke it produced when I was 'cooking' in the kitchen,'' Shigehisa said. ''Then, I moved to the verandah, only to be later scolded by my neighbors.''
Beyond the kitchen and the verandah, he finally developed his discovery at Kobe Steel Ltd. where he is general manager of the coal and energy technology department.
Applying the tempura technology he invented over a four-year period from 2001, the company made a pilot plant in the Indonesian village of Palimanan on the border between West Java and Central Java provinces.
Now a national project between Indonesia and Japan, it operates under the support of the Japan Coal Energy Center of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Research and Development Agency for Energy and Mineral Resources (tekMIRA) of the Indonesian Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.
Since Dec. 4, a brown coal demonstration plant has also been operating in the village of Satui in South Kalimantan Province.
According to the independent London-based World Coal Institute, Indonesia has about 4.97 billion tons of proven coal reserves, the fourth largest in the Asia-Pacific behind Australia, India and China, mainly on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
However, 58 percent of the country's coal is brown coal, a low-grade coal with high moisture content -- between 20 to 40 percent -- and low heat value.
It is also prone to spontaneous combustion, which can cause problems for shipping and storage.
The combination of negatives means brown coal is hardly ever used.
But Indonesian brown coal has low levels of ash and sulfur, so when used, it is environment-friendly.
Using the tempura technology, the process of upgrading brown coal uses light oil to remove the water from the coal and raise its heat value 1.5 times higher -- from 4,873 calories/gram to 6,251 cal/g -- to the same level as high-grade bituminous coal.
The process is also able to control spontaneous combustion.
Using a low temperature of 140 Celsius and low pressure, the condition simplifies the equipment required to carry out the process on an industrial scale and reduces the cost of investment.
Because of the low temperature and pressure, no chemical reaction is produced during the upgrading process, thereby reducing water and air pollution.
''The upgraded brown coal process can effectively utilize brown coal, an unused natural resource in Indonesia,'' Kobe Steel President Yasuo Inubushi said. ''At the same time, it will be an effective way to moderate the world supply and demand of raw materials and energy.''
According to tekMIRA head Bukin Daulay, the coal upgrading will save power plants and other industries from installing expensive pollution-control equipment.
''So, it is potential to create a clean, affordable and sustainable source of energy,'' Daulay said.
Coal is Japan's second largest source of energy after oil, with 21 percent of the electricity for everyday use in the country being made by coal-fired power generation.
Japan, however, depends on overseas energy supplies and is the world's largest importer of coal -- about 180 million tons a year.
On the other hand, Indonesia has become a net importer of oil since 2004 and the demand for electricity is expected to increase considerably in the future.
''Upgraded brown coal offers coal-producing countries a way to add value,'' Inubushi said. ''For coal-using countries, UBC will help meet their energy requirements.''
To carry out the UBC project, Kobe Steel has set up partnership agreements with natural resource investment company PT Bumi Resources Tbk and its coal subsidiary PT Arutmin Indonesia.
With a capacity of producing 600 tons of UBC briquettes a day, operation of the demonstration plant at the Satui mining site will continue until March 2010.
Bulk samples of UBC will be supplied for trial use, mainly to a number of power companies in Japan, as well as in Indonesia.
Investment of the project is expected to reach 8 billion yen (about $88 million) of which Japan's METI will provide half the funding.
''If it is technically and economically successful, hopefully, the project can be commercialized in 2010,'' Indonesia's Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Purnomo Yusgiantoro said.
''Our dream is that the commercial plant will be five times bigger than what we have today in the demonstration plant,'' he added.