Coal train

Britain was built on coal – from the prehistoric forests that first made the black mineral on which this island stands, to the industrial power that fuelled an empire – but since the demise of the pits in the 1980s, the once seemingly indivisible connection between coal and country has largely lain broken.

Now, however, new approaches to exploiting Britain’s rich natural reserves could soon see that disconnection reversed, as companies such as Cluff Natural Resources and Five-Quarter stand poised to target the UK’s offshore coal via underground coal gasification (UCG), and bring energy security for centuries to come.

Coal to syngas

Although there are various techniques used, in essence, as the name suggests, UCG involves turning coal into gas while it is still in the un-mined seam, with injection wells drilled to provide the oxidants – air, oxygen or steam – that drive the process, and production wells to bring the synthetic gas (syngas) to the surface. Principally composed of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide, with varying small amounts of other gases present, syngas can be used for power generation or as the feedstock for a number of other products including clean transport fuels, hydrogen, fertilisers and petro-chemicals.

Having completed one of the largest Arctic expeditions in history to understand the challenges, the partnership has now started to drill.

With the UK today sitting on an estimated 17 billion tonnes of suitable onshore resource – said to be enough at the current rate of consumption to meet the country’s energy needs for roughly the next 300 years – and still more offshore, the prospect is a tempting one, but selling it might be tricky. Coal does, after all, have a bit of an image problem.

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The case for coal

"Anyone with a brain in their head can see that we have to be looking at alternatives, but that’s against the backdrop – a global backdrop, I hasten to add – of ‘all things related to coal are extremely bad’ and that’s very hard to get past, especially with the public" says Underground Coal Gasification Association CEO Julie Lauder.

She explains that much of the negative environmental impact surrounding coal use takes place when coal is brought to the surface and burnt – something which simply does not happen with UCG. "We can capture the carbon," asserts Lauder. "It’s not an add-on process for us, it’s part of the UCG process, because as the gas comes up the pipe, the gas is cleaned up, the carbon is taken, so it doesn’t add to the bottom line of running a commercial plant." However, as she readily admits, the process depends on effective carbon capture and storage technologies being available.

A second North Sea

The benefits of bringing UCG technology to Britain’s vast subsea coal-beds could be enormous. Algy Cluff, UK offshore oil pioneer and the man behind Cluff Natural Resources (CNR), has called it a potential second North Sea, and plans are well underway to make it happen.

CNR holds five conditional licences from the UK’s Coal Authority, and as the company’s project support officer Sandra Onwutalobi says, those licences have stated publicly that exploration of the coal in these near-shore areas is imminent, subject to permitting.

"The benefits of bringing UCG technology to Britain’s vast subsea coal-beds could be enormous."

"Demonstration/first commercial operations are planned from 2016 onwards" she says. "Assuming these smaller-scale operations are successful in the target coal, large-scale production of syngas from these fields could be developed quickly and certainly within the five-year time span [of the licences]."

It is a broadly similar story at Five-Quarter – the Newcastle University spinoff company seeking to exploit some of the previously inaccessible coal seams off the north-east English coast. According to Five-Quarter chairman and CEO Dr Harry Bradbury, the company aims to go to planning before the end of 2014 and enter its ‘pre-commercialisation phase’ in 2015.

"This is a six to nine month demonstration period, where we will be looking to confirm the composition and value of our gases for a global industrial partner with whom we have been in conversation for two years so far," Bradbury says. "Then, further to our discussions with HM Treasury, we will enter an onshore building period for our plant which will last between two and three years."

Deep gas winning

Five-Quarter has its own approach called Deep Gas Winning – a technology involving very narrow boreholes and smaller, deeper cavities, which Five-Quarter’s PR director Caroline Collett describes as much more advanced and scientific than traditional UCG.

"We are also not only transforming coal into syngas, but also the surrounding rock strata, including sandstone and shale, which gives us a much more economic mix of gases, including, because of the depth we will be working at, higher percentages of hydrogen," she says. "In that sense, we are unique and different from the rest of the industry." The company hopes its plan will see it become a world-scale unconventional gas producer by 2018.

A viable process

It seems that everyone concerned believes the process itself is viable enough – and there is good evidence to support that view. First postulated by Sir William Siemens back in 1868, attempts were made to realise the commercial potential of UCG in a number of countries, including the UK, US, Canada and perhaps most notably, Russia. Although that work was largely abandoned after the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in the 1960s, one Soviet-era plant in Angren, Uzbekistan is still supplying a power station with syngas.

Critics have bemoaned the lack of progress from the industry but should the emphasis actually be on legislators to incentivise change?

The key to UCG’s modern resurgence lies in a technique borrowed from the oil and gas sector. Horizontal drilling allows a single well to open up access to a huge area of coal, fundamentally changing the economics of the process, with the bonus that unlike oil, offshore UCG wells can be drilled from land.

With Britain currently importing just under a half of its natural gas requirement, and estimates suggesting the figure could rise to 75% by 2030, the growing interest in domestic syngas production is not hard to understand, but nevertheless there are challenges that need to be overcome.

Challenges ahead

Opponents of UCG in general have cited environmental concerns, including groundwater contamination, sink-hole formation and the inherent dangers of a fire burning uncontrollably beneath people’s feet – but these are largely issues for the process onshore, not off. The big obstacles seem to be much more mundane.

"The main challenges lie in the permitting and planning approval of any UCG operations, and the authorities will interpret and apply existing environmental and safety legislation to both the surface and underground stages of the UCG process," Onwutalobi says.

"The company hopes its plan will see it become a world-scale unconventional gas producer by 2018."

In addition, those projects to be operated and drilled from shore, as opposed to offshore platforms, will also require public consultation and Local Authority approval. As the furore over fracking has amply demonstrated, winning the widest possible support base for novel energy projects is critical.

"Unconventional gas is a relatively new sub-industry and what we are doing is notably different from what has been happening, say, in the States for the last five years. We have to ensure that the manner and scale of our activity has the backing of all the relevant political offices," says Bradbury.

Ultimately, as Algy Cluff has often pointed out, the future of UCG offshore UK chiefly lies in the hands of the people, but Bradbury warns that Britain must not delay too long in making that decision. "In order to capitalise on the skills, existing infrastructure and the economic scenario, we really need to move in a relatively short timescale from being a fledgling to a mature industry," he says – and with China and the US also increasingly eyeing UCG’s potential, it seems the race is now on.

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