Wasting of coal by burning it in the 21st century is a clear sign of ignorance. Coal contains valuable ingredients like Mercury (Hg) and rare earth metals that can be recovered and sold as by products. If allowed to escape in exhaust gases they can be deadly poisons. In the nineteenth century when large scale coal fired power plants were built, technology to recover these valuable inclusions was not developed. Today this gift of nature can be converted into clean fuel with several commercially viable products.

In the recently concluded International Pittsburgh conference in which I participated and presented my paper titled: “Replacing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) with Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) in the Energy Mix of Pakistan”, there were several presentations on the appropriate use of coal. After the conference, I had the opportunity of visiting the Great Plains Synfuels Plant in Beulah, North Dakota. It is a state of the art complex where coal is first mined and then used for gasification and power generation. Dakota Gasification Company converts coal into pipeline-quality natural gas with several byproducts as follows: 170 million cubic feet of natural gas daily; anhydrous ammonia, 400 tons daily sold as fertilizer; Ammonium Sulphate, 1150 tons daily sold as fertilizer; Phenol, 28 million pounds annually used for resins; Krypton-Xenon, 3 – 5 million liters annually used for lighting; Liquid Nitrogen, 300,000 gallons per year, sold to oil service companies; Carbon dioxide, 3 million tons per day, used for oil recovery.; Naphtha, 8.4 million gallons per day, used as gasoline additive; Tar Oil, 40 million gallons per year, used for fuel blends; and finally Urea, 1100 tons daily, sold as fertilizer.

When so much can be obtained from this black gold, burning it in coal fired power plants makes no sense. In Punjabi such extravagance and waste is termed as: “Note nal cha pakana” (cooking tea by burning currency notes). It clearly indicates that our coal based energy policy is seriously flawed with the Sahiwal Plant being the most inappropriate of them all.

Pakistan has a gas based energy network. The discovery of 12 TCF of natural gas in 1952 was a gift of nature. Today the country has state of the art gas distribution network spread over 20,000 kilometers. Due mismanagement and misuse, presently there are gas shortages. The present government has started importing LNG from Qatar to meet the shortfall. The imported gas is being sold at Rs946 per mmbtu compared to local gas which is sold at Rs700 mmbtu. If the price of Brent goes up so will the cost of the imported gas rendering it out of reach for the local consumers.

Dakota Gasification Company can produce SNG at $5 per mmbtu but due to low gas prices in USA ($3 per mmbtu) they cannot compete. Its revenue comes from the sale of several byproducts. Clearly the high cost of imported gas in the country justifies the production of SNG from our local ‘Lignite Coal’ abundantly available at Thar (175 billion tons). LNG may be a short term fix but for the long haul gasification of local coal is the way forward. Above ground gasification is an established technology with several commercial gasifiers available in the market.

After persistent efforts, mining for coal has finally started at Thar. A joint venture of Government of Sindh and ENGRO called SECMC is responsible for mining coal which will then be used to produce 1320 MW of power (660X660) by burning the Lignite coal. The as mined coal can also be used to produce SNG and all the other by-products being exploited by Dakota Gasification Company.

While the world is moving away from burning coal we are blindly going in this direction. Fauji Fertilizer Company (FFC) has also acquired a block at Thar to gasify and produce Urea fertiliser; they too can produce SNG and all the other byproducts in addition to their core business of fertilizers. Beijing the most polluted city of Asia is undergoing a massive clean-up by regulating and reducing emissions from its coal fired power plants. There is a massive effort in China to produce chemicals from this black gold instead of burning it.

Centre for Coal Technology (CCT) at University of Punjab has recently installed a Lurgi Gasifier to produce Syngas (Co + H2) which will then be used for power generation. This gas after methanation can be converted into pipeline quality and used in place of natural gas (CH4). Coal will play a dominant role in the energy mix of Pakistan but it should be utilized as a 21st century fuel to maximize its potential. The huge coal reserves at Thar can once again deliver energy security and autarky as did Sui Gas for over half a century. Energy is the lifeline of a nation. The country is blessed with natural resources which should be exploited with the use of appropriate technologies. The newly formed Department of Energy (DOE) should be tasked to formulate an effective game plan to move forward to overcome the menace of gas load shedding.

The writer is Ex-Chairman, Pakistan Science Foundation.