Use of coal in the 21st century

By Dr Farid A Malik

Coal has met the energy needs of humans for centuries. The decline of this fuel resource started in the mid 20th century when large reservoirs of oil and gas were discovered. Despite the environmental degradation by the combustion of coal, most large economies of the world are dependent on its use. Countries like USA, China, India, Malaysia, Russia and Germany produce power by burning coal. The Koyoto Protocol has put a lid on the direct use of this fossil fuel. The entire civilised world, including Pakistan but excluding USA, are signatories to this agreement. As US meets around 56 percent of its energy needs by direct combustion of coal, it refused to be dictated by the Koyoto Protocol. Instead the Obama administration launched a programme called “Futuregen” to control emissions from coal-fired plants. Oxygen is introduced at the top of the combustion chamber to convert carbon monoxide (CO) to carbon dioxide (CO2), which is then collected and stored in underground silos to be disposed later. There is negligible emission of gases that cause the green house effect. In USA, no new plant based on direct combustion of coal has been built in the 21st century. In short, the environment has become important for the world and even the lone superpower has to respect it. So, the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated. Against this backdrop, Pakistan is moving in the direction of large-scale use of coal. The Thar deposit in Sindh is one of the largest in the world (175 billion tons). Punjab too has around 600 million tons of coal, which can be used as an energy resource. After the passage of the 18th Amendment, the provinces can generate their own power and exploit their own energy resources. In other words, the provincial governments are empowered and exercise control over their own natural resources. From an energy standpoint, Punjab is seriously handicapped as it lags behind in oil, gas and hydel energy resources as compared to other provinces. There are three main energy options for the province: solar, biogas and coal in the near future. Being an agrarian area, bio-fuels like jatropha, castor also have a potential for the future.Further, the Salt Range alone has about 500 million tons of coal that can be exploited. Unfortunately, the linkages for its exploitation do not exist. The mining practices are outdated and inadequate. There are no stockpiles or coal supply chains. As a result, imported coal is being used both for burning and gasification. Recently, a process has been developed in Germany for the upgradation of the Kalabagh iron ore, using indigenous coal at Makarwal. Due to the lack of supply chain, the process is now being shifted to imported coal.After availability comes processing or usage. Engro Energy was the first company to initiate two 600MW plants based on direct combustion of the Thar coal. To ensure supply of the coal, the company formed a Joint Venture (JV) with the Sindh government called Sindh Coal Mining Company (SCMC). Groundbreaking was planned for June 2012. It was an ambitious project costing $4 billion. Unfortunately, the funding could not be arranged and the deposit at Thar remains unexplored. In the 21st century, therefore, the exploitation of coal requires better planning and utilisation. As a country, we must develop a workable coal strategy. In the 19th century, it was acceptable to dig and then burn all varieties of coal (lignite, semi-bituminous, bituminous, coking, etc). The practice continued unabated till the 20th century. But global warming and environmental issues came to the forefront. While the energy resources are becoming scarce, the environment has also become critical. Nevertheless, coal may be a cheap source of energy, but it cannot be burned directly in the 21st century, it has to be processed.Above ground gasification (not underground) after mining is being done under Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC). It is called “Clean Coal Technology”. Once gasified, the synthetic natural gas (SNG) can be used for multiple purposes (diesel, fertiliser, power generation, etc). Being a relatively specialised technology, the cost of licensing is high, but can be negotiated and managed.Adhocism in this sector of vital national importance will be disastrous. In case of oil and gas sectors, there are complete chains of exploitation extending from exploration all the way to the pump. Coal continues to be a dirty business followed by primitive processing. This has to change in the 21st century. From mining to clean fuel, the linkages have to be established and it is not a small undertaking. The sector has to be moved from the 19th to the 21st century that is a big jump. All experts in the field agree that the linkages are non-existent. The issue has been raised in several international coal conferences, but remains unresolved. As coal is the future energy resource of Pakistan, we must take the lead and develop a unified plan to exploit and then convert this natural resource into a clean fuel worthy of being used in the 21st century.
The writer is the ex-chairman of Pakistan Science Foundation.

Courtesy: The Nation

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