Underground coal gasification (UCG) is a process of converting coal into gas while it is still underground, or in situ.
In some countries, like Canada, UCG is referred to as in situ coal gasification.
In both cases, the process makes use of deep, inaccessible coal that would otherwise remain unused in the ground, as the Fossil Fuel Foundation (FFF) workshop heard in Johannesburg last week.
Senior International Atomic Energy Clean Coal Centre analyst John Kessels told the FFF workshop that it was Russian leader Vladimir Lenin who advocated UCG as a way of reducing fatalities in coal mining in the former Soviet Union, where some UCG projects went well and some went really badly.
There have been many UCG trials in the last few years in the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada and Europe, with a consequent step-change in UCG development towards commercialisation.
One just has to look at what shale gas has done to the energy economics of the US to realise the potential that UCG could have.
In South Africa, Eskom has been researching and developing UCG at Majuba for the last six years and now former Sasol executives Johan Brand and Eliphus Monkoe are intent on going ahead with a UCG project in Theunissen, in the Free State, as can be read on page 6 of this edition of Mining Weekly.
Advances in horizontal and directional drilling allow coal seams to be accessed more efficiently, improved monitoring provides more accurate site measurement and better coal ignition technologies are enhancing UCG’s potential.
Kessels told prospective UCG developers to select remote sites, following the setback the Cougar project suffered in Queensland, Australia.
The potential is to use the synthetic gas that the UCG process provides for the generation of electricity or the production of transport fuels, chemicals and fertilisers.
Detailed UCG legislation is being formulated in Canada’s Alberta province to accommodate the privately owned Swan Hills Synfuels demonstration project there.
Currently, UCG appears to be standing in a queue behind many other energy alternatives.
But when one looks at its potential, one sees the imperative to move it closer to the front, on the grounds that this so-called ugly duckling appears to have the potential to be a useful swan, not only in South Africa, but in countries including Botswana, Mozambique and even Namibia.