Personal profile


Alan works in the School of Chemistry at Monash University as a Professor.

Energy for the future

For the best part of a century, brown coal has provided most of the energy Victorians use. But concern about the environmental consequences throws down many challenges. Are there more efficient ways of using coal? How can we best control the carbon dioxide emissions? If we capture carbon, are there good uses for it? How do we develop renewable fuels to replace coal? And if we stop using brown coal for fuel, what purpose can we find for this massive resource?

Professor Alan Chaffee's research embraces all these, and more.

Brown coal's reputation as a dirty fuel is not entirely justified, Alan says. 'It's very low in nitrogen, very low in sulphur, very low in ash, so to some extent people are getting the wrong message.'

On the other hand, its high water content makes it inefficient to burn and, conversely, once dry it is liable to spontaneous combustion. It is also an infamous generator of carbon dioxide.

'But it's such a large resource that if we can overcome those things or use it for other things, then that is beneficial to us,' Alan says.

Victoria has an abundance of brown coal, readily available in thick seams close to the surface. With the support of a Research Leader Fellowship from Brown Coal Innovation Australia, Alan is seeking new uses for this 'massive resource' and improved ways of dealing with it.

Obtaining chemicals from coal, and finding methods of extracting the moisture that don't themselves use high levels of energy, are both on this agenda.

He is also directing his chemistry expertise towards capturing the carbon dioxide pumped out of power stations, in research funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies.

His group develops adsorbents, specialist materials that function rather like sponges to separate the carbon in flue gases.

In a variation on that theme, Alan is also involved in investigating ways of catching carbon before rather than after combustion.

If coal is gassified to produce synthetic gas, carbon dioxide can be separated before the gas is burned for electricity. It's a more efficient way to produce power from coal, Alan says, but different materials are required as the carbon capture happens at much higher temperatures.

Talk of wholesale carbon capture raises questions about what to do with it, other than sequester it underground.

One apt use, which feeds into Alan's interest in sustainable biofuels, derives from carbon's capacity to increase the growth of algae.

Algal concentrates are already converted into biodiesel, but current processes use only half the suitable material. With support from Energy Technology Innovation Strategy, Alan is starting work on a different process that would convert it all.

That vast, accessible supply of brown coal is always front and centre in his mind.

'We do have this massive resource,' Alan says. 'It's so easy and it's so clean. But we have to make things more sustainable now. I don't think we have any choice. We're trying to do all these things in better and more efficient ways than in the past.'

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 14 - Life Below Water

Research area keywords

  • Lignite-Water Interactions
  • Mechanical Thermal Expression

Collaborations and top research areas from the last five years

Recent external collaboration on country/territory level. Dive into details by clicking on the dots or