The global research team turning coal methane into a power source
Methane, often found in coal deposits, is a particularly harmful greenhouse gas and a potential hazard in the mining industry. Could this methane be converted into energy?
A recent European research project has been leading the way in turning the gas into a useful fuel to produce energy in a more cost-effective manner. Moreover, a big part of the research has been conducted in Europe’s most easterly regions, including Kazakhstan, where there is a heavy legacy of coal mining.
The project, COMETH, looked at how coal mine methane (CMM) can be exploited, not just as a contribution to cutting greenhouse gases, but as a way of diversifying Europe’s energy resources.
The project involved tests of CMM in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, each of which brought specialist expertise to the project consortium, including insights into the mining situation in Kazakhstan and the Russian coal industry. The research team examined the CMM potential in Kazakhstan, produced guidelines on future CMM use projects, and successfully demonstrated two new technologies for exploiting CMM in Poland and Russia. Trial units were also built, with one in Poland producing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from CMM while a unit in Russia used very low methane containing gases as combustion air in gas engines for heat and power production.
The project had an important role to play in Kazakhstan, a country with the eight largest coal reserves in the world, accounting for almost 4% of the total global reserves. The COMETH team analysed the CMM potential in Kazakhstan’s Karaganda coal basin, where underground mines are particularly gassy and prone to violent gas outbursts.
Nikolai Tytyuk, from Kar-Methane, the Kazakh-German joint venture involved in the project says COMETH’s research team work stimulated ArcelorMitall Termitau, the largest mine operator in Kazakhstan, to launch its own CMM project. “The COMETH project was very helpful in promoting knowledge transfer and introducing innovative technology,” Tytyuk says, adding that the first test flare has been successfully let off, and that the introduction of the new technologies helped improve mine workers’ safety. “By understanding local conditions and connecting with companies in countries like Germany and Ukraine, we felt part of an international network studying the issue,” he says.
COMETH project coordinator Barbara Zeidler-Fandrich, from the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (UMSICHT) in Oberhausen (Germany), says the research showed how methane that would otherwise be released from the mine into the atmosphere can be converted into valuable heat and electric power. “We expect that successful proof-of-concept of both technologies - LNG production from CMM and utilisation of very low methane concentrated gases as combustion air in gas engines - will result in future investments in similar CMM industrial units,” she says.
Coal still plays an important part in the European Union’s energy mix, representing 17% of the total energy consumption and 27% of power generation. As a greenhouse gas, methane is about 21 times more harmful to the environment than the equivalent carbon dioxide, so its capture and use could save fossil fuels resources and cuts emissions. Global CMM accounts for 6% of total methane emissions caused by human activities. Yet despite its environmental advantages, it is rarely used in the Europe.
Zeidler-Fandrich underlines that, as well as being of environmental value, CMM also helps Europe make better use of its own resources. “By using methane energy from coal gases, we can help diversify energy sources and cut imports by exploiting our own resources – especially those in the countries with major coal resources like Poland and the Czech Republic,” she adds.