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Syngas or gasified coal is potentially a rich source of clean energy which the world is yet to fully upgrade the technology for. A lot of R&D is also happening in this area in the US and Europe.

India has abundant coal reserves but with the demand for this fuel rising steeply, there’s an urgent need to increase the rate of growth of coal production from 6% now to at least 17%. Since most of India’s known coal deposits are non-recoverable, we are now facing the unsavoury prospect of running out of the 70 billion tonnes of mineable coal identified thus far, by 2040. Here comes the importance of underground coal gasification which could help extract those plentiful reserves that are deep, scattered and covered by forests. The syngas technology is for converting non-mineable coal/lignite into combustible gases through in situ gasification of the material.

India has made a modest bid to develop indigenous coal gasification technology. A couple of urea plants of the public sector Fertiliser Corporation of India used to use syngas obtained from surface gasification of coal as feedstock. ONGC had unsuccessfully attempted to do a feasibility study on syngas as early as in late eighties at Mehsane in Gujarat, an area with deep deposits of non-extractable coal.

What, however, is slowing the whole process is the apparent lack of certainty about the commercial viability of the projects. This diffidence has to be overcome. After all, coal gasification technology is not very capital-intensive.

With India’s dependence on imported coal on the rise, perhaps the syngas route is a route worth exploring.