Over the last few years, increasing oil prices have had the public curious about whether this is the only way to fuel their cars. Considering all the technology available today, one would think at least one oil-deprived country would come up with an alternative way to get gasoline. Few people are happy with the costs and hassle of having to import oil from other countries, except perhaps the oil owners themselves. Therefore, there is plenty of motive to develop an alternative fuel source. What many members of the public do not understand is that there are plenty of ideas floating around, a few of which actually make sense. Underground coal gasification, or UCG, could be exactly what we need.


UCG is as natural as it gets, combining our natural resources, like coal, with smart technology. The process begins with two wells being drilled into the surface above the coal, referred to as the coal seam. Air gets pumped in through the first well, and the coal is ignited until it reaches extremely high temperatures. This heat creates a mixture of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and tiny amounts of hydrogen sulfide and methane. Oxidants are introduced through the first well, guiding this new synthesis gas, or syngas, out through the second well. The final step is for the syngas to be filtered to create clean fuel, absent of any impurities like carbon dioxide or sulfur.

Any issues the UCG process might possess have been worked out by its creators. For example, some environmentalists are concerned about the carbon dioxide that the UCG procedure creates. There is no need to worry, however, as proponents of the process ensure that the substance will never touch the atmosphere. This is because the UCG process creates a cavity under the surface where the solid coal once lay, and since it is now empty, it is the perfect spot for carbon dioxide storage. The gas is filtered before it is introduced to the surface, so a crisis can be averted by the simple fact that the process takes place underground. This probably sounds great, but one might wonder who the creators of UCG are.

The idea of UCG has been around since the late 19th century, when Sir William Siemens assumed that the process could eliminate any waste or unusable coal. Dmitri Mendeleyev, a Russian chemist, ran with the idea, and soon experiments were being performed in the early 20th century in the UK, under the watchful eye of Sir William Ramsay. World Wars I and II effectively shut down any further research with UCG, though the USSR’s Stalin initiated funding during that time for experimentation with the process. Though World War II did delay more research, at the end of it the Soviets were once again experimenting with UCG, leading to 14 underground coal gasification plants by the 1960s.

When few people understand a unique idea, but they see a need for it, they often continue to look into it. However, when they neither understand it nor see a need for it, they often ignore it or shut it down. Though scientists had made great progress with UCG by the 1960s, at that time, there was no energy crisis like there had been directly after World War II. Oil prices were low, as there was an abundance of it, so interest in an alternative energy source waned in Europe. However, the US wanted its turn with UCG, and worked into the 1970s and 1980s with field testing.

By 1989, the UK, Belgium, and Spain all decided to participate in trials that would either prove or disprove the commercial viability of UCG. Despite the interest of these countries, China actually has the largest program, which consists of 16 trials. The country to play a large part in UCG development most recently is Australia, which boasted the successful underground gasification of 35,000 tons of coal between the years 1999 and 2003, with no environmental repercussions.

Clearly several large countries have expressed either a renewed or brand new interest in the technology behind UCG. However, just because some countries are finally joining the interest does not make UCG a new idea. This alternative method of obtaining energy has been around for over a hundred years, passing various tests and milestones. It’s just about time that the rest of the world caught on to this unique, viable method of obtaining clean fuel.