TodayApril 17, 2022

Underground Coal Gasification

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG)

I was reading John Kerry’s democratic platform that concerned the environment and automobiles. In the document, Kerry called for the increasing use of coal. Instantly, I thought, boy if that isn’t a political ploy to try to get more votes from the coal-ridden states. Then I talked to Ray Smith at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory(LLNL).

There are many ways that are being used currently and suggested for use in the production of hydrogen. Just today in a report given by Bob Glass of LLNL to the California Hydrogen Highway they suggested, Solar Biological Water Splitting, Solar Electrochemical Water Splitting, Natural Gas/Bio-Derived Liquid Fuel Reforming, Electrolysis using the grid, Wind & Solar Electricity, Biomass & Hydrocarbon Gas Separation Technologies and Solar & Nuclear Thermochemical Water Splitting.

John Kerry portrait of climate change including coal

Coal as an energy source

They never mentioned coal. Coal is an important source of energy, up to now being created primarily for electricity. According to, coal combustion emit’s almost twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy. So, why coal?

According to Smith, twenty years ago LLNL developed a method known as Continuous Retraction Injection Point (CRIP) for efficient production of synthetic gas from the underground coal seam. More simply, it is hydrogen production via underground coal gasification combined with carbon dioxide sequestration. LLNLs projections are that this approach will expand the United States coal reserves for hundreds of years while producing carbon-free hydrogen at a lower cost than gasoline production today.

The buzzword for the future is hydrogen. Hydrogen reduces our dependence on imported oil, cleans up our air by emitting only heat and water and, if done correctly, creates another revenue stream for the United States. Everyone would love to see hydrogen work, but hydrogen has problems, the most significant problems being how to produce hydrogen without creating emissions and how to transport hydrogen. It is agreed by all concerned that hydrogen must be produced from alternative, renewable energy sources. At this point, one renewable has not been decided upon, partly because renewables are too costly and they emit more emissions in production than gas.

Larry Burns of General Motors explained it best to me, ” Were not just interested in the production of hydrogen, were interested in the infrastructure of the hydrogen highway. If the United States can create the patents and methods for the infrastructure we would be less dependent on oil and create a business economy that would give us the same type of revenue that we are currently sending to foreign countries.”

The best is the enemy of the good

Electrolysis of water is another popular form of creating hydrogen and it is carbon dioxide-free. Smith is concerned that people are expecting a solution that will be the ultimate solution, instead of using resources we can use now, that we know. Hybrids and hydrogen/internal combustion engines (ICE)are good for now, while the ultimate solution seems to be a fuel cell vehicle powered with hydrogen.

According to Smith, the agreed-upon holy grail is hydrogen produced from renewable fuels, such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, cellulose, or biomass. Production by these methods is pollution-free, sustainable, and can be found in the United States, making us less dependent on countries that might be harboring terrorists.

Currently, we are producing hydrogen from natural gas, through a process called reforming. Hydrogen combined with ammonia creates fertilizer, but it also creates carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas that causes global warming.

Globally, we know that we are closer to becoming a hydrogen-run state, ultimately replacing gas. The biggest obstacles to creating an infrastructure are production, transportation, and storage of large quantities of hydrogen.

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is not commercially viable now and much testing has to be done. UCG, using 1,000+ meters deep coal seam (to deflect water contamination) would cost about 45 cents per kilogram to produce hydrogen, emission-free. To produce one gallon of gasoline costs 95 cents. A kilogram of hydrogen and a gallon of gasoline have nearly identical energy content.

What about transportation with coal?

There are thousands of miles of ammonia pipelines in operation in the US today. The speculation is that if the hydrogen is combined with ammonia it could be distributed through pipelines to distribution centers throughout the coal states.

Using today’s technologies, producing hydrogen is equivalent to paying today’s prices in Europe or Canada for gasoline. With UCG mining the coal is eliminated.

Coal – Good news, bad news

The one problem with this is that it would not be viable for the California hydrogen highway because of the transportation cost. The states UCG would be most viable would be;

West Virginia

We are nowhere near having the best solution for hydrogen, but that does not mean that hydrogen cannot be produced.

According to Glass, A Limited Number of Technologies are Viable to Help Bring About the Hydrogen Transition in Phase I;

  • Natural gas, ethanol, and methanol-reforming
  • Electrolysis using both grid electricity and renewables (wind and solar)
  • Delivery of compressed gas and liquid hydrogen by truck, and compressed gas by pipeline (limited)
  • Mobile refueler’s best part of this business proposal is that the patents can be shared with other countries, either for revenue or production data. According to LLNL, China has large amounts of coal and needs ammonia for fertilizer. Today China produces about 30 million tons of ammonia a year. China could save nearly an exajoule of natural gas by producing ammonia from coal through UCG instead of NG. And it would mean cleaner air for all.
Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.

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