May 04 2011 | Posted by wun

Turning coal into methane using nanotechnology

By Brian Murphy

A University of Alberta researcher has received special funding to turn underground coal seams into methane gas, a less environmentally harmful source of energy.

Mechanical engineering professor Sushanta Mitra wants to adapt a bioconversion process that occurs naturally over millions of years into a fast-moving production that breaks down coal and captures methane gas in storage tanks. Mitra says bioconversion of coal to methane has great potential for improving the environment globally.

“The standard practice of burning coal for power generation could be reduced and possibly eliminated,” said Mitra. “Bioconversion will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power generation by 25 per cent.”

The process by which coal is changed to methane is called methanogenesis. The researchers are experimenting with a variety of microbial materials, which will be mixed with water and piped underground into coal seams. The research could be applied to coal-based energy production anywhere in the world, says Mitra, and could be of special importance here in Alberta.

“Only about five per cent of the coal-bed methane reserves are accessible by conventional mining and bioconversion could supply more methane for generating power in this province.”

Mitra received a $1.92 million grant from Carbon Management Canada, a national research network with the goal of driving net-carbon emissions towards zero.

The researchers are currently working in a laboratory with core samples from coal deposits. “We hope to have full-sized testing on an underground coal seam here in Alberta by 2015,” said Mitra.