Amidst looming summers, post-Psifi exhasution, load-shedding after every one hour - which is apparently a little small compared to the tau: time constant of a UPS (couldn't resist that bit) - and our very mature and responsible media having nothing better to discuss than the wedding plans of two sports celebrities, I got a chance to enlighten myself on Pakistan's energy crisis and its most promising solution: the Thar coal.
Today 41% of the world's electricity is produced by coal-fired power stations- the highest share by any power source, followed by gas and hydro respectively. With China producing 75% of its electric power from coal and US 50%, the fact that Pakistan stands at a meagre 0.7% despite possessing the world's seventh largest coal reserves(almost 175bn tonnes) is clearly a case of criminal neglect on part of the government - and in my opinion also - on the part of the scientists and engineers associated with whatever R&D sector we have in this country. The potential of these reserves to produce thousands of megawatts of power that can cater to our energy-deficit for years to come was discovered back in 1992; and here we are in 2010 and things still haven't moved forward except for a few companies' "expression of interest in exploiting the reserves".
Why? Well, first, there was the long-drawn fight between the Centre and the Sindh government over the ownership of the reserves; then there are our oil-obsessed policy-makers who in their great wisdom still find it convenient to import and sell petroleum at mammoth prices and divert funds towards the super-expensive rental power projects instead of tapping what's lying underneath Thar.
The questions that the scientists would perhaps be more concerned about are the coal's sulphur content and the environmental impact of its exploitation etc. Considering the extent of Pakistan's industrialisation, the country's contribution to global carbon emissions are still far below what's dictated by the Kyoto Protocol, so the environmental issue isn't much of a problem at this stage. Coming to the science of making use of these reserves, Undergound Coal Gasification(UCG) is the most recent and ambitious task undertaken by Pakistani scientists in that regard. In simple words UCG or in-situ gasification decribes the process of converting coal into a mixture of combustible gases- notably hydrogen and methane- that can be used to drive turbines in a power station to produce electricity. While, the process requires an initial high input of energy as gasification needs hot steam and oxygen, an interesting alternative lies in an emerging area of biotechnological research. The action of certain fungi followed by chemicals can yield the useful gases from the coal at much lower temperatures than that required by conventional UCG. According to an article published in the DAWN Business and Economic section, the employment of this strategy could actually turn out to be a profitable venture for the country. I really hope, the studies or projects we do over summers or in our senior year explore further in areas such as above, in order to do something concrete about the energy crisis. Check out http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/21423/?a=f
Meanwhile, I am glad there is more than just its folklore and Sufis to fancy about Thar.