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Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) – Potential to

increase coal reserve worldwide

By: Partha Das Sharma

Introduction –
Worldwide, coal reserves are quite vast - over 10 trillion tonnes. However, unless cleaner
and cheaper ways can be found to convert coal to gas or liquid fuels, coal is unlikely to
become an acceptable replacement for dwindling and uncertain supplies of oil and natural
gas. Mining coal is dangerous work. Coal is dirty to burn and much of the coal in the
ground is too deep or too low in quality to be mined economically. Today, less than one
sixth of the world’s coal is economically accessible. However, there is a renewed interest
world over to revive the old technology that offers promise to substantially increase
usable coal reserves and make coal a clean and economic alternative fuel. Known as
underground coal gasification (UCG), this technology converts coal to a combustible gas

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is the process by which coal is converted in situ
into a combustible gas that can be used as a fuel or chemical feedstock. It is a process to

convert unminable underground coal/lignite into combustible gases (i.e., combustible
syngas – a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide) by gasifying. UCG uses a
similar process to surface gasification. The main difference between both gasification
processes is that in UCG the cavity itself becomes the reactor so that the gasification of
the coal takes place underground instead of at the surface.

Despite considerable research and testing, no commercially viable project has yet been
demonstrated anywhere. Research has been conducted principally in Western Europe,
USA, China, the former Soviet Union and Australia.

Benefits of UCG –
As a method of exploiting coal, UCG represents an environmental improvement on the
combination of coal mining and surface combustion of coal. It is also safer and intuitively
more efficient.

Environmental benefits of UCG over underground coal mining for fuelling power
generation include:

(i) Lower fugitive dust, noise and visual impact on the surface

(ii) Lower water consumption

(iii) Low risk of surface water pollution

(iv) Reduced methane emissions

(v) No dirt handling and disposal at mine sites

(vi) No coal washing and fines disposal at mine sites

(vii) No ash handling and disposal at power station sites

(viii) No coal stocking and transport

(ix) Smaller surface footprints at power stations

(x) No mine water recovery and significant surface hazard liabilities on abandonment.

Additional benefits include:

(i) Health and safety

(ii) Potentially lower overall capital and operating costs

(iii) Flexibility of access to mineral

(iv) Larger coal resource exploitable

Note: At present, natural gas offers attractions as a clean fuel that UCG may find difficult
to compete.

Process of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) -

The basic UCG process involves drilling two wells into the coal, one for injection of the
oxidants (water/air or water/oxygen mixtures) and another well some distance away to
bring the product gas to the surface. Coal is gasified underground by creating a linkage
through the coal seam between the injection and production wells and injecting air (or
oxygen) and water (or steam) into the underground reaction zone. The injected gases
react with coal to form a combustible gas which is brought to the surface in a production
well, cleaned and used as a fuel or chemical feedstock. A cavity is formed as the coal
burns and the roof collapses. This results in lateral growth and is allowed to continue
until the product gas quality deteriorates. The greater the lateral growth, the longer the
life of a gasifier and the more cost-effective the operation. When the quality of the
product gas falls, fresh coal is ignited further along the injection well. Once the coal
within the underground gasifier has been exhausted, new injection and production wells
are drilled and the process is repeated.

Injecting oxygen rather than air reduces the nitrogen content and raises the heating value
of the produced gas to the ‘medium-Btu’ gas range – of heating value roughly one-fourth
of natural gas. If the goal is high-Btu gas (also called as substitute natural gas or SNG),
the percentage of methane in the produced gases needs to be boosted. For methane
formation in UCG, two additional steps are required. First, some of the carbon monoxide
made in the gasification process is reacted with steam to form additional hydrogen. This
step, called shift conversion, sets up the proper ratio of gases for the next step called
methanation. The hot gas thus produced is allowed to pass through the coal seam to the

exit boreholes and is carried to the surface where it is cleaned and upgraded for use. The
whole aspect is elaborated in next paragraphs.

In fact, gasification differs from combustion which takes place when coal is burned in
excess oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water. Another important difference
between coal combustion and coal gasification is in pollutant formation. The reducing
atmosphere in gasification converts sulphur (S) from coal to hydrogen sulphide (H2S)
and nitrogen (N) to ammonia (NH3), whereas combustion (oxidation) produces sulphur
dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx).

The principal processes can be divided into two stages, namely (i) pyrolysis (also known
as carbonisation, devolatilisation or thermal decomposition) and (ii) gasification. During
pyrolysis coal is converted to a char releasing tars, oils, low molecular hydrocarbons and
other gases. Gasification occurs when water, oxygen, carbon oxide and hydrogen react
with the char.

The main gases produced are carbon dioxide, methane (CH4), hydrogen and carbon
monoxide (CO) and oxygen. CH4 is essentially a product of pyrolysis, rather than
gasification. Its formation is favoured by low temperature and high pressure.

In a theoretical appraisal of the gasification process, the Autothermal Chemical

Equilibrium (ACE) condition exists. This is a condition at which the heat value of the
product gas and the conversion efficiency of the gasified coal (chemical energy of
product gas/chemical energy of gasified coal) is a maximum. At high temperatures and
pressures (say 5MPa, 900°C), ACE conditions are approached rapidly but at lower
temperatures and pressures the time to attain equilibrium greatly exceed the residence
time of the gases in the gasifier and therefore ACE will not be attained.

The basic reactions can be generalised to a simple empirical form:

C + O2 → CO2 (+heat)

C + CO2 (+heat) → 2CO

C + H2O (+heat) → H2 + CO

C + 2H2 → CH4 (+heat)

During pyrolysis coal, subjected to high temperatures, yields higher heat value gases than
ACE gasification products for a relatively small consumption of O2. Pressure increases
the proportion of coal pyrolysed to form methane thus raising the heat value of the
product gases. There is also some evidence to suggest that elevated pressures cause
pyrolysis processes to penetrate in situ coal, further enhancing the gasifier yield.

Gasification circuit and Cavity behaviour -
The gasification circuit requires a flow link to be achieved between an injection and a
production well. Methods of achieving the link are:

* Accurate drilling assisted by a target device in the vertical well if necessary.

* Reverse combustion, involving ignition at the base of the production well.

Initially, channel created in coal seam using special drilling techniques. As reaction
proceeds, channel grows, creating underground ‘cavity’. Volume of cavity increases
progressively with progress of reaction.

Installation of well pairs (injection and production wells) is costly and therefore it is
desirable to gasify the maximum volume of coal between a well pair. As gasification
proceeds, a cavity is formed which will extend until the roof collapses. This roof collapse
is important as it aids the lateral growth of the gasifier. Where the roof is strong and fails
to break, or where the broken ground is blocky and poorly consolidated, some fluid
reactants will by-pass the coal and the reactor efficiency could decline rapidly.

The most successful gasifier or reactor control process, developed in the USA, involves
the use of a burner attached to coiled tubing. The device is used to burn through the
borehole casing and ignite the coal. The ignition system can be moved to any desired
location in the injection well. This ‘controlled retraction of ignition point’ (CRIP)
technique enables a new reactor to be started at any chosen upstream location after a
declining reactor has been abandoned.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) –
There is growing concern among climate scientists and policy scholars that the global
community must reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly and quickly to prevent
catastrophic climate change. Recognizing that fossil fuels now meet 85% of global
energy and that global energy demand is increasing, carbon capture and sequestration
(CCS) will be an important option to limit carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, carbon
capture and storage (CCS) is an approach to mitigate global warming by capturing carbon
dioxide (CO2) from large point sources such as fossil fuel power plants and storing it
instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Technology for large scale capture of CO2 is
already commercially available and fairly well developed. Although CO2 has been
injected into geological formations for various purposes, the long term storage of CO2 is
a relatively untried concept and as yet no large scale power plant operates with a full
carbon capture and storage system.

In the case of UCG, if the CO2 is to be captured at the surface and sequestered, it must be
separated from the syngas. At a UCG production site, a significant percentage of the CO2
would likely be sequestered in the void left by the burned coal seam. Ideally, remaining
CO2 can be sequestered in deep geologic formations nearby.

If the CO2 is not sequestered in place, it can be piped to oil fields. Oil companies can
then inject it underground to increase production from oil and natural gas wells, a process
called enhanced oil recovery. This represents an opportunity to sequester carbon at a
lower cost compared with storing it in geologic repositories.

Monitoring and Control –
In order for the gasification process to be controlled, it is essential that continuous
analytical measurement of the product gas stream is available.

Injection flow rate and composition, temperature and pressure were measured at various
parts of the circuit to facilitate control of the gasifier and to ensure pressure and
temperature design limits of system components were not exceeded. The manipulation of
the following variables allowed the reaction rate and the gas quality to be adjusted within
certain limits:

(i) Injected gas flow rate and composition

(ii) Reactor back pressure

(iii) Production well base temperature

(iv) Safety monitoring and alarm control

Technical requirements –
Important technical requirements and considerations in designing a commercial gas
production scheme:

(i) A cost-effective means of acquiring high-resolution coal seam geological data

(ii) Reproducible drilling accuracy

(iii) Multiple, independent gasifier units (with separate injection and production wells) to
ensure systems failures do not totally halt gas production

(iv) Integrated surface plant using readily available off-the-shelf equipment wherever

The most critical element of deep UCG is arguably the directional drilling. Technologies
exist which are capable of achieving the required precision but there is considerable
uncertainty about the general drillability of coal seams in other than ideal conditions.

Environmental Impact and its Control –

The main environmental issues concerning UCG are:

(i) Atmospheric emissions;

(ii) Surface water;

(iii) Drinking water pollutants;

(iv) Noise;

(v) Site operations;

(vi) Groundwater;

(vii) Subsidence.

Conclusion –
Today, high prices of oil and gas and uncertainties about political stability in most of oil
producing countries, have renewed interest in all kinds of fuel. A renewed interest in coal
gasification is therefore not surprising. Further-more, hydrogen is now a welcome by-
product because of the current interest in alternatively fuelled vehicles. UCG is
potentially the most important clean coal technology of the future with worldwide
application. Ultimately, it could be a substitute for deep mining coal for power generation

Applying improved UCG technology to gasify deep, thin, and low grade coal seams
could vastly increase the amount of exploitable reserves. The coal could be converted to
gas for a variety of uses and emissions of sulphur, nitrous oxides and mercury could be
dramatically reduced. UCG could increase recoverable coal reserves by as much as 300
to 400 percent. Another benefit of UCG is that hydrogen accounts for nearly half the total
gas product which can be separated and actively used as automotive fuel or as feed-stock
for the Chemical Industry.

Moreover, investment in CCS technologies is growing rapidly; however, challenges

facing this technology include developing policy to create incentives for deployment, the
creation of a regulatory framework, securing funding for large-scale projects to help
refine the technology, and managing the unresolved environmental and public safety

Countries are turning to UCG to fully utilize their coal resources in an economically
viable and environmentally acceptable manner. Using UCG technology even without a
carbon-capture-and-sequestration plan could also be eligible for carbon credits.

Summary –
Mining coal has a tremendous environmental impact, so extracting the energy out of coal
while it still is in the ground makes a lot of sense. Gasifying coal below ground
eliminates the need to mine the coal. Underground coal gasification (UCG) has the
potential to provide a clean convenient source of energy from coal seams where
traditional mining methods are either impossible or uneconomic to develop. Underground

Coal Gasification (UCG) or the use of geo-reactors offers tremendous potential to clean
up coal energy and enable economic access to stranded coal deposits.

This is a method of converting deep seam coals into a combustible gas used for industrial
heating, power generation or manufacture of hydrogen, syngas or diesel fuel. UCG is,
essentially, burning the coal seam underground in controlled conditions, which combines
gasification and coal extraction into one step. Recent developments in directional drilling
have been critical in moving the process forward to commercial viability. It is well suited
to the exploitation of low quality and deep resources, in other words, coal which is hard
to mine through conventional methods.

Underground coal gasification (UCG) involves injecting steam and air or oxygen (O2)
into a coal seam from a surface well. The injected gases react with coal to form a
combustible gas which is brought to the surface in a production well, cleaned and used as
a fuel or chemical feedstock. A cavity is formed as the coal burns and the roof is allowed
to collapse. This process results in lateral growth of the gasifier in the seam and is
allowed to continue until the quality of the product gas declines. When this occurs the
seam is re-ignited at a new location further along the gasifier. Once the coal within the
underground gasifier has been exhausted, new injection and production wells are drilled
alongside the exhausted gasifier and the process is repeated.

UCG has the potential to exploit coal resources which are either uneconomic to work by
conventional underground coal extraction, or inaccessible due to depth, geology or other
mining and safety considerations. The successful development of UCG will not only
depend on advances in the use of technology but also on demonstrating that a clean
energy can be produced without detriment to the environment. As a method of exploiting
coal, UCG represents a substantial environmental improvement on the combination of
coal mining and surface combustion of coal.

The Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) Process-

• Process Wells (the collective term for the injection and production wells in a
UCG project) are drilled into multiple coal seam/s.
• The injection wells are used to feed a pressurized oxidant such as air or
oxygen/steam into the coal seam.
• The production wells recover the product gases.
• The process wells are connected within the coal seam by the linkage of low
hydraulic resistance pathways that allow production and movement of the syngas.
• At the surface the syngas is converted to Methane and then DME (Dimethyl
Ether), if required, in a small chemical processing plant or for any other use.

UCG vs Surface Gasification-

• UCG differs from above-ground gasification in a number of ways:

• Coal is not mined and chemical processes all occur in situ in the virgin coal

• Process water for gasification usually comes from the coal itself.
• No ash or slag removal and handling are necessary since they stay underground.
• Production cost of Methane or DME is far lower using UCG than from the
conventional mining and processing of coal to produce Methane or DME.