Britain Is Swimming In Enough Energy For Generations To Come
The energy potential buried deep under the North Sea is vast almost beyond comprehension. There is an estimated 3 trillion tonnes of coal according to Harry Bradbury who plans to extract gas from it – enough to keep the country’s lights on for generations to come.
One of the UK’s most exciting unconventional gas projects involves drilling into rocks deep below the North Sea. Using a process called “Deep Gas Winning”, Five-Quarter Energy Holdings Ltd. plans to extract gas from what was once thought to be the dirtiest fuel: coal.
Five-Quarter CEO Dr Harry Bradbury might convince you otherwise. A geologist by training who has taught at Cambridge and Yale Universities with three start-ups under his belt, he says his latest endeavour came about in part because he and his wife bought a home in the north of England. After making contact with the University of Newcastle, he became a professor there and tapped into a great source of inspiration.
Newcastle, he says, has a 400 year history of involvement with traditional coal mining, but the industry was closed down in the 1970s and 80s. “Much of the repository of knowledge and documentation came to the University of Newcastle and that’s been ceded to Five-Quarter, so we started out with a very healthy basis of understanding of everything that’s happened up here on coal.”
In talking about the UK’s energy needs in the future, he admits that there is much talk of leaving coal behind.
“We’re all very aware that the manner in which we’ve used coal, notably for power generation, has contributed significantly to global warming through the excess greenhouse gases that have been derived,” explains Dr. Bradbury. “But for us, turning your face against that was the wrong starting point; the point we made early on in this was, ‘look, what if we could demonstrate that we could still make use of the energy contents of coal, recognising that despite everything that happened since the Industrial Revolution, 75 percent of Britain’s coal reserves are still underground, untouched?’
“What if we could actually do something with the energy content that was clever without in any way creating greenhouse gases in the process? Because that’s for us a step beyond the current thinking, where people talk about progressively reducing our carbon emissions, but of course the smarter game altogether is carbon use or carbon removal such that we’re not actually damaging the environment in the process” he says.
“As you’re well aware, the US is going for energy independence largely based on shale gas, but there are not only shales, but coals and other rocks in between, which you can convert directly to gas.”
The question was, recalls Dr. Bradbury, was it possible to extract gas and prospectively create gas without creating an environmental issue? He believes the answer is yes.
In preview of his appearance at Unconventional Gas Aberdeen 2014, which takes place on 25-26 March, Dr Bradbury offered this exclusive interview to Natural Gas Europe.
Dr. Bradbury, could you kindly describe Five-Quarter’s “Deep Gas Winning” project?
We’ve been working on a project that we call “Deep Gas Winning” and the answer to what that is lies in the name: we’re looking at deep-seated gas and not at anything that is particularly shallow and therefore problematic in relation to other things like aquifer systems or man’s use of the upper layers of the earth.
Secondly, we’re talking about a combination of high technology petroleum techniques, notably directional drilling and similar downhole technologies and these are combined with our knowledge base of traditional mining and what you can and can’t do in relation to an understanding of the mechanical, thermal or fluid evolution of those kinds of rocks at great depth.
Although, in the UK, as you’re aware, most people’s involvement so far has been with onshore activities, we know that unlike onshore in the UK, the continental shelf below the North and Irish Seas contains dramatically more natural resource than onshore and obviously we don’t suffer from the difficulties of being close to urban communities or usable aquifers or the types of planning concerns that will fall against those that try to do things onshore.
What we’re doing with Deep Gas Winning is combining together the extraction of gases that have been there through geological history with the actual creation of gases in certain rock types – notably coals. We can do all of that in a single process without the kind of process that shale and coal-bed methane have, which is more of a hydraulic fracturing process.
In effect we’re taking the best of what others would have in shale de-gassing, in coal-bed methane and coal gasification in a single process, without fracking and what that does is create a more diverse gas stream than you get from shale gas or coal-bed methane, where you’re looking for predominantly methane.
In our case you have a mixture of methane, CO₂, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and some other things, and the reason why that diversified gas stream is important is, we just happen to be sitting 60 kilometers north of one of Europe’s largest chemical and petrochemical clusters in Teesside, and we know that these clusters – Teesside and Grangemouth in the UK as well as their equivalents in Europe – are struggling terribly to find feedstocks at the right kind of cost base to keep them competitive with what’s happening in the States.
If you have a diversified stream of gases as we do then it gives you a lot more flexibility to have building blocks such as methanol, hydrogen streams and so on that you can actually use as an indigenous feedstock for the process industries.
How much processing will this involve?
If we were to take it straight out of the ground we can put it directly into the electricity business, but in relation with what we’re doing with the chemicals industry sector, we’ve succeeded in our negotiations with Her Majesty’s Treasury. We went to them about a year ago now to ask if our project could form part of the Government’s Infrastructure Guarantee Scheme. We asked them if they would consider potential investments at more than 1 billion pounds’ worth where the Government acts as a guarantor of investments. The purpose of that investment is not just to build a sub-surface infrastructure to actually extract the gases, but to build a unique facility at the surface to purify the gases and to separate them out into different fractions for different industries. There is a carbon capture process that is part of that.
We’ve been successful in reaching this stage with the Treasury and our intention is to build a certain facility that allows us to take that raw gas from underground and to create gas that’s separated out for chemicals industries and potentially for the clean fuels industry.
If you can do this successfully, it sounds like the size of this resource would be tremendous. What will be the keys to Five-Quarter’s success going forward?
If you look at the assets that are in the ground, those that are in the continental shelf, they are indeed very significant. Were you to take say 2 billion tons of coal and look at the energy content of that, there is more energy in that than has been extracted so far from the totality of our North Sea gas exploitation to date, and if I were to tell you that there’s more than 3 trillion tons of coal sitting in the North Sea right now, then obviously getting progressively smarter about how we can access those assets is a real prize for us, because from a national point of view you are looking at a significant part of the total energy coming from those sources when we can get it to scale.