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. According to the precise estimates, the Thar carries the worlds second biggest coal deposits amounting to around 185 billion tons which have the cost of three trillion dollars in the international market.
However, the Thar Underground Coal Gasification project had hung in the balance for the last 14 months following the sharp criticism led by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear scientist, and Shahid Sattar, member of the Pakistan Planning Commission. But in August last, the project received close to $10 million from the government as a green signal.
Samar Mubarakmand, the Thar UCG head and PPC member for Science and Technology, has said that “It’s a pity that the funds were withheld for 14 months and released on the intervention of the prime minister of Pakistan. We will be in a position to produce diesel from coal within months, using the Fischer-Tropsch method.”
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.
Samar Mubarakmand said that the cost of producing one barrel of diesel from Thar coal would be $40. While this is higher than the $25 South Africa spends on producing diesel from coal and the $28 by China, Pakistan imports diesel at up to $120 a barrel.
He said that Pakistan need not worry about technology transfer costs. We are planning to enter into joint ventures with international partners. They have done their costing which also covers this aspect.
Criticism of the UCG project by Dr. Abudl Qadeer Khan and some coal technology experts has centred on the alleged failure by Samar 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, commented 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, said that the project may not be viable in any case because of the Thar lignites low calorific value and high vapour content.
But, according to Samar Mubarakmand, the low calorific value would be offset by the large deposits of lignite an estimated 185 billion tons spread over 9,000 square kilometers of the Thar region.
Experts are of the strong view that following the persistent energy crisis in the country, the government should come up with a solid and practicable approach so that the energy policy especially the alternate energy options including the proper usage of the Thar coal is implemented effectively as it is, no more, in a position to continue with this crisis.
Shahzada Irfan Ahmed