Methane release from South African coal mines25 May 2018
The widely employed IPCC models for the release of methane from underground coalmining operations are reviewed, and put in the context of the South African National Communication on greenhouse gas emissions. Then attempts to calibrate the model via measurements on South African coalmines are described. These attempts failed because it rapidly became clear that the IPCC model, involving methane adsorbed by the coal and released (a) by the depressurization of the strata caused by mining, (b) from the broken coal and (c) from coal remaining in roof, floor, pillars or goaf after mining, was not valid. Instead, measurements showed that the methane release was very variable, sporadically falling to zero. Carbon dioxide concentrations were monitored at the same time as methane, and followed methane concentrations. An alternative model was developed, in which methane was largely displaced from the coal and held in fissures, cleats and pores, which, when intersected by mining, released methane into the ventilation stream, In a key test of this hypothesis, methane concentrations around a continuous miner were monitored both during operation and after shutdown. Even during operation, methane became undetectable. It is hypothesized that heating of the South African coal-seams during the emplacement of the igneous dykes that cut so many of the seams caused displacement of the methane from the coal into the pores. This fissure-held methane, or free methane, is released rapidly once a pathway through the coal into the mine atmosphere is established. In contrast, methane adsorbed in the coal, and measured as the seam gas, desorbs relatively slowly. Measurements suggest that on average about 50% of the adsorbed methane is lost one day after mining. By that time, the coal will have left the mine, so that the remaining seam gas will be released to the atmosphere outside the mine. Attempts to measure methane emissions from surface coal-mining operations showed very little detectable methane. Coal from surface operations, which was milled and exposed to atmosphere, adsorbed gas from the air. It is concluded that methane release from surface operations is probably less than 3Gg/a. It is estimated that the total methane release from the coalmining industry amounts to about 72 Gg/a, as opposed to the National Communication estimates of 323 Gg/a in 1990 and 317 Gg/a in 1994. However, there are large errors associated with these estimates, and it is recommended that the methodology outlined in this report be extended to as many mines as possible to reduce the errors that are inherent in the physical processes underlying the release of methane from South African coalmines.