[LAHORE] Pakistan is pushing ahead with a controversial plan to produce synthetic diesel through underground gasification of its vast coal deposits in the Thar desert in Sindh province.
The Thar Underground Coal Gasification (Thar UCG) project had hung in balance for 14 months following criticism led by Abdul Qadeer Khan, nuclear scientist and Shahid Sattar, member of the Pakistan Planning Commission (PPC). But in August, the project received close to US$10 million from the government as a green signal.
"It's a pity that the funds were withheld for 14 months and released on the intervention of the prime minister of Pakistan," Thar UCG head and PPC member for science and technology, Samar Mubarakmand, told SciDev.Net. "We will be in a position to produce diesel from coal within months, using the Fischer-Tropsch method,” he said.
The Fischer-Tropsch process converts into liquid hydrocarbons a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen derived from coal, natural gas or biomass feedstock. The Thar project will use lignite, a form of coal and a fossil fuel.
Mubarakmand estimates that the cost of producing one barrel of diesel from Thar coal would be US$40. While this is higher than the US$25 South Africa spends on producing diesel from coal and the US$28 by China, Pakistan imports diesel at up to US$120 a barrel.
Pakistan need not worry about technology transfer costs, Mubarakmand said. "We are planning to enter into joint ventures with international partners. They have done their costing which covers this aspect."
Criticism of the UCG project by Khan and some coal technology experts has centred on the alleged failure by Mubarakmand to convincingly demonstrate his claims of being able to produce cheap energy from Thar lignite.
Shahid Munir, director of the Centre for Coal Technology, University of the Punjab, Lahore, told SciDev.Net that there should be an independent feasibility study of the project by an internationally reputed agency to settle the controversy.
Arshad Abbasi, an advisor on energy at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, told SciDev.Net that the project may not be viable because of Thar lignite’s low calorific value and high vapour content.
But, according to Mubarakmand, the low calorific value would be offset by the large deposits of lignite – an estimated 175 billion tonnes spread over 9,000 square kilometres.