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North East coal back in business?

Date 18 Dec 2007

The abandoned coalfields of the North East could still be used to provide energy, according to researchers at Newcastle University. A team of geologists and biologists have been studying the little-understood process by which naturally-occurring bacteria deep below the ground convert oil and coal to natural gas, over many millions of years. They believe that this process could be speeded up, possibly by simply feeding the bacteria nutrients like vitamins and minerals down boreholes.

If the theory works in practice, oil and coal reserves that are currently uneconomic to extract from the ground could be converted to sources of natural gas, otherwise known as methane.

The findings of the research, led by Professor Ian Head and Dr Martin Jones, of Newcastle University, and Professor Steve Larter, who works at both Newcastle University and Calgary University in Canada, were published this week in the scientific journal, Nature.

The researchers are well aware that most countries are currently trying to reduce their reliance of fossil fuels, like oil, coal and gas, in a bid to tackle climate change. Professor Head, of the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University, points out that burning methane as a fuel, for example in power stations, produces about ten per cent less greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, than burning coal or oil.

Professor Head said: "There are potentially major economic implications to these findings, since a proportion of the trillions of barrels of oil, currently regarded as unworkable, could in theory be converted into methane, or natural gas. "In North East England, similar processes may occur in abandoned coal mines, opening the door to a possible means for recovery of the region's extensive abandoned energy resources as clean-burning methane."

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