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BP and LLNL Sign Technical Cooperation Agreement on Underground Coal Gasification for Fuels Production

Layout of a UCG well for the LLNL CRIP process. Click to enlarge.

BP and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have signed a technical agreement to work cooperatively on the development of underground coal gasification (UCG) technology for the in-situ conversion of coal deposits into fuels and other products.

At a UCG production facility, air or oxygen is injected into the cavity, water enters from surrounding rock, and partial combustion and gasification take place at the coal seam face after ignition. The resulting high-pressure syngas stream is returned to the surface, where the gas is separated and contaminants are removed.

UCG offers the potential to produce fuels and hydrocarbon feedstock from coal deposits which may otherwise be unrecoverable. By introducing a carefully controlled supply of air or oxygen through wells into a coal seam, the coal can be reacted in situ to produce mixtures of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other gases. These can be recovered to the surface through wells and used as fuel for power generation or as feedstock for the production of chemicals and other hydrocarbon products.

The UCG syngas is similar to syngas obtained from conventional surface coal gasification systems, but production is achieved at a much lower cost.

The initial two-year technical agreement with LLNL will address three broad areas of UCG technology:

  • Carbon management to evaluate the feasibility of carbon dioxide storage underground;

  • Environmental risk assessment and management; and

  • Numerical modeling of the UCG processes to understand and history match pilot test results.

The technical objective based on BP’s in-house data is for LLNL to provide BP with expertise, model results, new capabilities and insights into the operation and environmental management of UCG. LLNL has been working with UCG technology development and field deployment for more than 30 years and will provide its experience and capabilities in advanced computation and modeling, engineering, environmental management, and carbon management (including carbon sequestration).

A number of countries, including the US, Former Soviet Union (FSU), China and Australia, have carries out UCG tests over the preceding decades. The FSU alone carried out more than 50 years of research on UCG, field tests and several commercial projects, including an electric power plant in Uzbekistan that is still in operation today.

According to LLNL, multiple commercial projects are in various stages of development in the US, Canada, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, and China to produce power, liquid fuels, and synthetic natural gas.

In May, for example, construction began on China’s first industrial-pilot underground coal gasification (UCG) project in the Northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Seven ignition and production wells reached the coalbed 200 meters below ground by May 23 in the project's $112 million first phase. The project consists of underground drilling and ignition, aboveground coal-gasification power generation, and chemical production.

Several processes exist to initiate and control UCG reactions, including the Controlled Retraction Injection Point (CRIP) process [developed by LLNL] and Ergo Exergy’s proprietary εUCG process. These ignition processes create a syngas stream which is compositionally similar to surface-produced syngas. It can have higher CO2 and hydrogen products due to a number of factors, including a higher than optimal rate of water flux into the UCG reactor and ash catalysis of water-gas shift. Because of the nature of in-situ conversion, UCG syngas is lower in sulfur, tar, particulates and mercury than conventional syngas and has very low ash content. Other components are similar and can be managed through conventional gas processing and clean up.

The economics of UCG appear extremely promising. The capital expenses of UCG plants appear to be substantially less than the equivalent plant fed by surface gasifiers because purchase of a gasifier is not required. Similarly, operating expenses are likely to be much lower because of the lack of coal mining, coal transportation, and significantly reduced ash management facilities. Even for configurations requiring a substantial environmental monitoring program and additional swing facilities, UCG plants retain many economic advantages.

—from “Best Practices in Underground Coal Gasification”

There are two primary, shorter-term environmental hazards associated with UCG: ground-water contamination and surface subsidence. Both of these, according to LLNL, appear avoidable through careful site selection and management.

Environmental risk assessment for UCG has unique aspects, requiring consideration of a complex array of changing conditions, including high cavity temperatures, steep thermal gradients, and stress fields obtained during and after the burn process. In the context of the site stratigraphy, structure and hydrogeology, risk models must evaluate the permeability changes from cavity development and collapse as well as the effects of changes in buoyancy, thermal and mechanical forces on the transport of organic and inorganic contaminants. Operational variables (e.g., temperature, feed gas composition) also impact the amount and nature of contaminants produced and groundwater flow directions. Furthermore, subsequent use of the cavity for CO2 sequestration will impact the mobility of byproducts and will alter risk.

The longer-term issue is carbon management. LLNL suggests that because the UCG syngas reaches the surface at elevated pressure and high temperature, decarbonization may proceed at reduced—or in some cases, extremely low—cost. LLNL has begun to investigate both traditional and novel means of UCG decarbonization as part of an integrated energy and environmental strategy.

LLNL is carrying out a research program aimed at investigating the key processes and mechanisms of CO2 storage risk. The lab has also signed a MOU with ErgoExergy to look for appropriate opportunities to conduct lab- and field-based investigations on this subject.

Ergo Exergy contributed to the initial work at Linc Energy’s Chinchilla project in Australia. (Earlier post.) Ergo Exergy technology is also being used in the first Underground Coal Gasification plant in Africa, which started operation in January 2007.

BP has experience and extensive activities managing and producing coal-bed methane and other gas resources, using technologies and expertise in seismic interpretation, directional drilling and fracturing techniques.




Is this their new tactic since BP has recently announced they will no longer pursue CO2 pumping for oil recovery and sequestration of CO2?


Patrick: are they not going forward with their Carson City and North Sea projects?


I just don't see how setting an underground coal fire on purpose could possibly be a good idea.

Even if you're sure there's no way for oxygen to get into the vein (and how, really, would you know for sure?) when you started, what's to say the heat won't crack the rock and let enough oxygen in so that the burn is no longer controlled?


I think the idea is that the coal is so far down that that won't happen. Besides, try letting a short candle burn in a tall glass.


I suppose this is a practical way to use coal which is otherwise unmineable, but it sounds messy and potentially dangerous. See the following url for an interesting article on unmanaged coal fires around the world. In China alone they say 120 million tons/year are consumed. www.post-gazette.com/healthscience/20030215coalenviro4p4.asp

Lets move away form fossil fuels, reduce our energy consumption and population which is what will ultimately happen anyway.


Mother Nature does her best to keep that carbon out of the atmosphere but human ingenuity triumphs again. The CO2 should be separated out and reinjected into another deposit, from both underground partial combustion and the above ground application. If carbon taxes ever happen it could greatly increase the cost of this approach.

Stan Peterson


I 'm glad to see you have volunteered to reduce the population.

Please be considerate. Pay all your bills, arrange for your funeral expenses, and put your affairs in order, before committing Harri Kiri and reducing the population.

Thanks for your love of the environment. Over your lifetime you would have consumed tons of vital raw materials and spewed lots of CO2 into the atmosphere.

We thank you.

John Schreiber

I like this plan, I am sure management of the process will be at least as safe as nuclear power, with the exception of the ghg. The process is a good interim solution on the way to renewables and energy independence.

Suzanne Stewart

Maybe some interest

Has anyone ever seen coal strip mining? Mountain leveling, massive destruction of natural habitats and in some cases up rooting of people! Not to mention how energy in efficient it is to dig canyons and try to put all the dirt back. Why mine coal to gasify it, when if syngas in your final product you can mine it and gasify it simultaneously without destroying the surface!

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