China is pushing forward with a new strategy for expanding access to coal energy that could also reduce its environmental impact: turning coal into clean-burning gases in the ground.
At a U.K.-Chinese summit in Beijing late last month that included British prime minister David Cameron and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, a $1.5-billion commercial partnership was launched to gasify six million tons of buried coal per year and generate 1,000 megawatts of power.
The project in Inner Mongolia’s Yi He coal field is being advanced by the state-owned China Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Group, and U.K.-based Seamwell International, a newly formed developer of underground coal gasification (UCG) technology. It is the most high-profile of several such proposed projects in China. More than a dozen similar large-scale projects are under development in other countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Hungary.
UCG is promoted as a relatively clean method of exploiting coal seams that are too deep or thin to be tapped economically using conventional mining. Such seams in Inner Mongolia hold an estimated 280 billion tons, according to Seamwell. That’s more than double the tonnage of recoverable coal in China recognized by the London-based World Energy Council. UCG can also generate electricity from coal with less air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and water consumption than existing coal-fired power plants.