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Coal Gasification, Fracking, and Natural Gas Headlines

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If you thought shale gas was a nightmare, you ain't seen nothing yet. A subterranean world of previously ignored reserves is about to be opened up. These are the vast coal deposits that have proved unreachable by conventional mining, along with gas deposits around them. To the horror of anyone concerned about climate change, modern miners want to set fire to these deep coal seams and capture the gases this creates for industry and power generation. Some say this will provide energy security for generations to come. Others warn that it is a whole new way to fry the planet.

A primitive version of the technology behind this Dantean inferno of underground coal gasification (UCG) has already been running for 50 years in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Some 300 meters beneath the plains east of Tashkent, Stalin's engineers and their successors have been burning a seam of brown coal that can't be mined conventionally. There are two well heads on the surface: one pumps air down to fan the flames while the other retrieves a million cubic meters of combustion gases a day. Scrubbed of coal dust, cooled and compressed on site, the gases are then sent down a pipeline that snakes across the countryside to a sprawling power station on the outskirts of the industrial town of Angren, where they are burned to generate electricity.

A deadbeat town in a forgotten rust-belt backwater of the former Soviet Union is an unlikely test bed for a cutting-edge technology. But if it can be scaled up successfully, the Australian engineers who bought the operation seven years ago think it could transform the world's energy markets, open up trillions of tonnes of unmineable coal and provide a new carbon-based energy source that could last a thousand years.    


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