COAL RESERVES IN PAKISTAN

China's interest will fuel exploration in the country

By Syed M. Aslam
Feb 23 - 29, 2004

The vast coal reserves of Pakistan, estimated at around 186 billion tons have finally started to attract foreign investment, the most prominent being China interested to setup a coal-powered power generation plant by end this year at Thar, the area that houses the largest reserves of over 175 billion tons. Though many other countries, including Bosnia, have also shown keen interest in coal exploration. This article primary highlights the Chinese interest that would fuel coal exploration in the country.

A pre-feasibility study of the Thar coal reserves has already being conducted by the Shinhua Group. As is, coal plays an important role as the primary and an inexpensive source for power generation. For instance, over half of the power generation in the US comes from coal, the share of which is expected to increase to 54 per cent by the year 2020. In many other developed countries it is also being used as the primary source for power generation.

The policy makers in Pakistan have also realised the importance of coal as inexpensive power generation resource and that explains the government's plans meet 20 per cent of its energy demand from coal in the near future. The plant at Thar, funded by China would provide half a million dollars soft credit for the proposed 600 mw plant. It would be one of many other coal-powered plants across the country generating a total of 3,000 mw under the plan that envisages to meet 20 per cent of the energy demand from coal as planned.

While no two coals are alike primary due to the fact that each has its very own chemical properties, it is encouraging to note that lignite type of coal found in Pakistan is suitable for power generation despite certain limitations it contains high sulphur content and also high ash. However, lignite could be processed and washed to make it suitable for use in power generation. Coal found at Lakra mines, which has substantial reserves of over 1.3 billion tons, is found most suitable for washing. A national company, Shahzad International, with international links signed a MoU with the Sindh Government to set up a washing plant in November 2002 in the country which costing $ 4 million with an annual capacity of 1 million ton primary to be used by the cement industry.

A number of studies have also been conducted for the use of Lakhra coal for power generation including government of Sindh, Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation and others. The coal is primary used by brick kilns and though, as reported by PAGE in its Issue No. 4 this year the half of cement industry has also converted to coal and the remaining is expected to shift from gas to coal by end this year, the conversion has not benefited the local coal because cement units use costly imported coal as the local coal is of low quality. However, the conversion has helped local coal find a new market because it is used in the mixing with the imported counterpart.

While power plants could be a major consumer of indigenous coal, the high sulphur and ash content make it unsuitabel for the purpose and thus, at present, brick kilns are its major consumers.

China's willingness to setup coal-powered plant around the coal mines in Thar makes all the more sense because it would help save heavy transportation expenses which otherwise makes the use of coal economically unviable. In addition, lignite found in Thar has comparative lower sulphur content to make it more suitable for power generation after the most suitable washing process and the most appropriate plant design.

As mentioned earlier each coal differs from other in ways and no two coals are exactly the same. Just as oil is fossalised animals, coal is fossalised plants. Coals, however, differ in many different ways as per their heating value, ash melting, temperature, suphur and other impurities, and numerous other chemical and physical properties. These numerous properties of a coal determine its use for a particular purpose.

Coal is primary classified into four major categories, or 'ranks' lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite. One of the most valuable content of coal is its carbon content which supplies most of its heating value. However, various other factors are also important to determine the amount of energy per unit weight of a particular coal.

Bituminous and sub-bituminous 'ranks' of coal are inferior to anthracite while lignite ranks the lowest. Anthracite, the top ranked coal has the highest carbon content that ranges between 86-98 per cent and has a heat value of nearly 15,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) per pound. The bituminous variety is used primary to generate electricity and to make coke for the steel industry. It has a carbon content of between 45-86 per cent and a heat value of 10,500-15,500 BTUs per pound. Sub-bituminous comes next it has 35-45 per cent carbon content and a heat value of 8,300-13,000 BTUs per pound. However, despite its lower heat value, sub-bituminous coal also has lower sulphur content compared to other 'ranks' which makes it attractive for use because it is much cleaner to burn.

Lignite, the indigenous 'rank' found in Pakistan is a comparatively young coal geologically speaking and has the lowest carbon content of just 25-35 per cent and also the lowest heat value of only 4,000-8,300 BTUs per pound. However, lignite which is called 'brown coal' at times is mainly used for electric power generation.

Having defined the various coal 'ranks' show that the vast deposits of indigenous lignite could be used in Pakistan for power generation to help lessen dependence on expensive oil imports which despite reduction, due primary to shifting of power plants to gas, still costs billions to the national economy annually.

It's time to explore coal and develop coal-fired power plants to not only lessen dependence on imported fuel but also to cut the cost of power production for the benefit of the industries, trade and individual consumers.