Dec 30, 2010

CoalFires - Free energy or environmental nightmare?

How much energy could we harvest from this worldwide problem???
The fire burning deep below Centralia, Pa., is just one of numerous coal fires burning in at least 20 states today, with thousands more worldwide. They gobble up resources, spew dangerous emissions, and scar the land. Yet little is known about their impact on climate change or human health due to carbon dioxide and mercury emissions, say experts.

Approximately 200 underground coal fires burn in about 20 states, according to Glenn Stracher, a researcher at East Georgia College in Swainsboro, Ga., A separate tally shows 112 fire sites in 21 states, according to Office of Surface Mining data analyzed by Dr. Stracher and fellow researcher Ann Kim.

Causes of such coal fires range from spontaneous combustion to lightning to wildfires that ignite coal seams that then move underground to smolder and burn at temperatures that can reach 500 degrees F. or more.

Analysis of heat-fused rock "clinkers" shows that coal fires are an ancient phenomenon. "We've been dating clinkers, showing coal fires have occurred for at least couple of million years, so they're not new," says Mark Engle, a researcher at the US Geological Survey, "but undoubtedly human activity has exacerbated it."

In 2002, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that underground coal fires around the world emitted about 48 tons of mercury annually.

Worldwide, thousands of underground coal fires burn, with perhaps 1,300 in Indonesia alone, says Dr. Stracher, who is editing a four-volume scientific compilation of coal and peat fires around the world. He estimates that fires are burning in at least 20 nations, but notes that researchers have little understanding of their environmental damage and the scope of their impact on human health.

Read more at the Christian Science Monitor