The Swan Hills Gasification Demonstration Project

Earlier this year, the Government of Alberta announced that it will contribute $8.83 million, through the Alberta Energy Research Institute, towards a $30 million underground coal gasification project with Calgary-based Swan Hills Synfuels LP. At 1,400 metres below the surface, the demonstration project is the first of its kind in North America and the deepest underground coal gasification project in the world.

The Swan Hills syngas facility is expected to be operational in 2012 and will have a nameplate capacity of 910,000 m3/day of syngas for sale to end-users and 2,000 tonnes/day of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery projects or sequestration by third parties. The Minister of Energy has been authorized to grant an In-Situ Coal Gasification Lease to Swan Hills. To that end, Swan Hills has already drilled two production wells and will began production of syngas in June of this year.

A Primer on Coal Gasification

Generally speaking, coal gasification is a process that converts solid coal into a highly combustible gas, called syngas or synthesis gas, which is composed primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, with small amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. The gas produced can be used as fuel for clean power generation, further processed into gas for home heating, or for other products like hydrogen, methanol or transportation fuels, and the gas can be used as feedstock for the creation of other chemicals.

Coal gasification can be performed above ground at surface gasification plants or below the earth's surface (otherwise known as "in situ" gasification or underground coal gasification "UCG"). UCG utilizes coal deposits at depths that would otherwise make conventional coal mining uneconomic or simply not possible. The in situ process involves drilling two wells, an injection well and a producer well, into to the coal seam. Heat, oxygen and steam (created by non-potable saline water) are then injected into the coal bed. A chemical reaction occurs which produces the gas that is brought to the surface through the producer well and stripped of CO2 and other contaminants leaving hydrogen, methane and a synthetic mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Because the process occurs at depths of greater than 1000 metes, in situ coal gasification does not contaminate fresh groundwater, nor does it pollute the air with toxic smoke. The CO2 captured can be sold to third party conventional oil producers for use in depleted well recovery efforts. As well, the cavity that is created after the coal seam is exhausted can be used for CO2 storage.

Coal Gasification Appears to Have a Promising Future

Today environmental issues are an important part of political agendas and private citizens' concerns. Given the expected debate over the use of nuclear power within Alberta, and the ever-present concerns about the environmental impact of oil sands operations, coal gasification is a welcome innovation that could satisfy Alberta's increasing demand for cleaner energy. Swan Hills Synfuels LP hopes its demonstration project will show that coal gasification is a viable alternative for cleaner energy production. They should know by the end of this year whether the project can realize its potential by producing commercial quantities of syngas while reducing energy sector's overall impact on the environment.  

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