Bioconversion of coal the goal of CMC-funded project

University of Alberta Professor Sushanta Mitra is leading a team of 15 researchers in an ambitious project to coax communities of microorganisms to convert coal into natural gas, or methane, right in the ground.

The project is one of 18 recently announced by CMC in its second round of funding.

The methane produced from bioconversion could be collected for use as a clean-burning fuel. There are some 50 coal-fired power plants in Canada. Each emits roughly 3 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year.

If made economically viable, the method could potentially reduce Canada’s net CO2 emissions by 25 per cent while allowing access to the energy stored in deep, unmineable coal.

“The challenge is that our understanding of the process is currently confounded by the complexity and variability of coal, the inaccessibility of many coal seams and their associated microbiota, and the lack of knowledge of basic biodegradation systematics and reactant transport in coal,” explained Mitra.

He and his colleagues will investigate bioconversion at the nano-scale through to lab and field scales.

Some team members will study the best environmental conditions for bioconversion and the biochemical pathways that microbes use to degrade coal. DNA analysis will identify which microbial species are at play. The researchers will also use high resolution microscopy to examine the pore structure of coal as well as the microbial-coal interface.

Mitra and other engineers on the team will design sensors to monitor microbial activity and, using lab experiments and computer modelling, will investigate how nutrients and methane flow through coal. Other contributors will create a plan for a field-scale bioconversion system.

Participating in the three-year study are investigators with the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, the University of Western Ontario, New Paradigm Engineering Ltd. and the University of Arizona.

For complete release: U of A Researchers receive CMC funds