Burning coal undersea could be fuel of the future

Burning coal under the seabed sounds like a crazy idea – but experts believe it is a safer, cleaner way of getting fuel out of the ground than traditional coal […]

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By Vicky Ellis

Burning coal under the seabed sounds like a crazy idea – but experts believe it is a safer, cleaner way of getting fuel out of the ground than traditional coal mining.

Called underground coal gasification (UCG), the process of turning solid coal into gas deep underground gets at the coal trapped in tricky seams of rock.

“You drill two parallel holes, into one you inject antioxidant, them which produces a smouldering effect – producing a Syngas, which is then ejected from the parallel hole,” says Algy Cluff, CEO of Cluff Resources and the man who found one of the first oil patches in the North Sea.

“There’s no new technology involved in it all”, he says, hastily adding it is not like hydraulic fracturing, hoping to hedge off the sort of opposition which has stalled fracking in the UK.

Mr Cluff told ELN: “If I’m right the scale of it could be enormous in the sense there are billions and billions of tonnes of coal dispersed around the UK shores.”

The AIM-listed company has five licences on the UK coastline, to drill down into ground and then outwards under the sea to reach the coal beds.

These are in the Dee Estuary, Scotland’s Firth of Forth and Largo Bay, the Irish Sea off the coast of Cumbria and the Loughor Estuary in Wales.

Mr Cluff says UCG could be of “colossal importance” for the country’s energy supply.

He told ELN: “The UK and Japan are unique as they are the only places that are surrounded by coal.

“The Government are listening. It will create prosperity and prosperity equals jobs among other things such as security.”

With tensions between Russia and Ukraine triggering fears for gas supply, Mr Cluff believes UCG is a solution.

He said: “Britain is blessed really, we are at a critical situation which is beginning to dawn on people and Britain has a home grown solution.

“We hope and expect UCG is welcomed by Brits but ultimately it’s in the hands of the people in this country. I hope that as people learn about it they will see the common sense in it.”

“Cheaper than offshore oil and gas”

Mr Cluff says it’s “considerably cheaper” than offshore oil and gas drilling because there’s no need for a rig, you can base operations on dry land.

Representation of underground coal gasification. Image: Thinkstock
Representation of underground coal gasification. Image: Thinkstock

“There’s no real explorational risk either. If you’re drilling for oil or gas now the odds against you are 20 or 30/1 against, and the cost of finding a single, dry hole is over $100million.

“We know the coal is there, it’s been there for years and it’s been mined, by human beings in some cases, under the North Sea until about 20 years ago,” adds Mr Cluff.

Advocates of the technology describe it is as a “cleaner” option. The UCG Association says it has lower emissions than coal because the syngas is processed to remove CO2.

The body says commercial scale projects have begun in Australia, China and South Africa with India and Canada also interested.