The federal government’s decision to withdraw funding from the proposed HRL coal-fired power plant has been seen by some as “pulling the pin” on a chance to “demonstrate coal gas technology.” But far from lamenting the loss of “new gasification technology,” we should be celebrating a fitting end to a fuel source with a 400 year history. In fact, 2012 marks the bicentenary of commercialised coal gasification.
– In 1609, Flemish scientist Jan Baptista van Helmont discovered that heated coal released a flammable “wild spirit”. He realised this spirit was different to air and named it “gas”, from the Greek word for “chaos”. This is the origin of the English word “gas”.
– In the 1790s Scottish engineer William Murdoch perfected the production and capture of gas from coal and developed gas lighting. His house is believed to be the first domestic residence lit with gas lighting.
– In 1812 the Gas Light and Coke Company was founded, which built the world’s first commercial gas supply in London. Westminster Bridge was lit by the company the following year.
– The 1850s and 60s were the golden age of coal gasification, with most towns in the UK and the United States building gasworks. Lighting technology developed leading to major changes: streets were better lit improving public safety, more people began reading and writing with better light outside working hours and shift work became possible in many manufacturing industries.
– Coal gas was an important fuel during both world wars and ships carrying coal for gasification were often targeted by German submarines. Many were sunk by torpedos or floating mines.
In the second half of the twentieth century electricity and natural gas made coal gas obsolete. These energy sources were cleaner and cheaper, and by the 1960s coal gas was unable to compete with natural gas even in the Latrobe Valley, where one of the world’s largest coal deposits lies. Most gasworks have been closed down, often leaving behind heavily contaminated soil and groundwater. The Lurgi factory at Morwell remains as an asbestos-filled reminder of the coal gasification era.
Today, commercial coal gasification continues in some low-income countries, but has largely disappeared from the developed world. Coal gasification looks very unlikely to return to its former prominence. Without government subsidies, such as the $150 million HRL initially attracted from the Victorian and federal governments, and even with these grants, it seems coal gasification, and many other so-called ‘clean coal’ technologies will be unable to compete against cleaner and cheaper energy sources.
400 years later we should be looking to new energy sources …like windmills!