Coal has long been regarded as a polluting relic of the Industrial Revolution, as well as being expensive to exploit.
Yet a British entrepreneur wants to bring coal back into fashion.
An estimated billion tons of coal lies beneath Swansea Bay in Wales and Rohan Courtney, of Clean Coal U.K., has his eye on it.
It won’t be dug up, though… not in any literal sense, at least.
Courtney plans to uses underground coal gasification, a technology pioneered in the old Soviet Union a century ago.
During gasification coal is blown through with oxygen and water vapor while also being heated. Oxygen and water molecules oxidize the coal and produce a gaseous mixture of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor and molecular hydrogen.
Courtney says recent advances in directional drilling have made the technology economical:
“It’s only in recent years, that the cost of oil has shot up and also, you know, the technology’s a lot better. Directional drilling is probably one of the main reasons that it’s found its moment.”
At its peak, the British coal industry employed 200,000 miners.
The yearlong, nationwide strike of the mid-80s helped accelerate the industry’s decline.
Gasification doesn’t require miners, so the plant, which opens within months, is expected to operate more efficiently than the coal mines of 30 years ago.
The technology, however, is not without its critics. Dieter Helm, a professor at Oxford University, voices his concerns:
“Coal is a really bad thing from an environmental perspective and if you look at the growth of emissions and think about the impact on climate change since we started the whole Kyoto process, it’s coal and emissions which are almost perfectly correlated, so the question is how to get out of coal or at least how to make the coal cleaner. Now the question about gasification is does it offer an opportunity to make it a bit cleaner, and the answer to that is not sure, it might.”
Gasification’s supporters say, because it produces synthetic gas underground, the release of toxins is minimal.
With 18 licenses issued for plants like these in Britain, the debate between supporters and opponents of coal seems set to heat up once again.