Dr. Samar Mubarakmand is an eminent scientist who led the team of scientists and engineers to conduct Pakistan’s Nuclear Tests at Chagai in May 1998. He did his masters in Physics with academic “roll of honour” from Government College Lahore in 1962 and later did his D. Phil in Experimental Nuclear Physics from the University of Oxford in 1966. He was later appointed Chairman of NESCOM in 2000. On joining the Planning Commission of Pakistan he was responsible for conceiving and implementation of the Reko Diq Copper Gold Project and the Underground Coal Gasification Project at Thar Coal Fields.
Pakistan came into existence in 1947. It is still a nascent state and therefore it is still in search of a stable and strong existence. It is a very well-known principle that nations run on two wheels. Primarily our country has to have a viable defence and then its stability and prosperity has to be based on a strong and sustainable economy. From its early days, Pakistan had to face aggression from its eastern neighbour. Unfortunately, the geo-political situation of the country saw a neighbour almost eight times larger in population and resources with a smoldering problem of Kashmir as a bone of contention between them. In the first twenty four years of its existence, Pakistan was attacked three times from the east. This was predominantly due to a gross imbalance of power between the two sides. In the mid-seventies, the defence planners of Pakistan realized that with the manpower and resources available, a balance of power in conventional military terms could never be achieved with the adversary. A right decision was taken to go for the nuclear option. With a consistent and focused perseverance from four successive governments and a sterling effort from the scientists, engineers and technicians of the country, Pakistan became the seventh nuclear state in the world and the first Muslim nation to acquire nuclear weapons. A balance of power has come about and our country has acquired a position of respect and dignity in the sub-continent. An era of advancement in mutual trade, cultural exchanges and economic cooperation has set in. It is a proven principal that irrespective of the military strength, nations can collapse if the economy breaks down. The Soviet Union disintegrated in a similar fashion. Having secured a viable minimum nuclear deterrence, it is now extremely important to work for establishing a vibrant economy in our country. Cheap and abundant power is the lifeline of cheap industrial and agricultural production. Without power, the economy of a country can slowly suffocate just as a human body cannot survive without air. The main factors for a boost in GDP of China are continuous and abundant availability of electricity at a tariff of around two cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Add to this the fact that there is no terrorism threat and there is total industrial peace in China. Availability of electricity at cheap rates will definitely bring down the cost of both agricultural produce and make the industrial output more competitive for exports. We have to also realize that the government is presently producing electricity at an average cost of Rs. 16/KWh but the revenue return averages Rs. 8/KWh. Electricity theft and line losses contribute to 50% loss of revenue. Our hydroelectricity is produced in the north of the country where a steep fall in water level is available to run the turbines. Although this source of power appears to be cheap yet there are two considerations to account for. The capital expenditure in establishing a large dam like Tarbela or Mangla runs into billions of dollars. The dam life initially may be upto 40 years but can only be extended with additional expenditure on raising its height. This capital expenditure should be spread over the total number of electricity units produced to arrive at a realistic cost of production. Another point is that power from hydroelectric projects may have to travel a thousand kilometres before arriving at the main industrial centres at Karachi, Faisalabad, Lahore etc., resulting in significant line losses. The ideal scenario would be to generate electricity close to the industrial centres and at low production cost with the minimum of capital expenditure. Furthermore it is imperative that the fuel for power generation should be from the country's indigenous resources. Electricity produced from imported furnace oil or diesel costs Rs. 20 to Rs. 24 per KWh. Pakistan has a large potential for run of the river small hydroelectric projects. It is estimated that there is potential for generating 50,000 megawatts (MW) from the northern rivers and their tributaries. Small temporary inflatable rubber dams can be installed at suitable locations to generate power for local consumption in small towns and villages in our main valleys of Swat, Kaghan and along the Karakoram Highway. Pakistan is endowed with abundant sunlight for ten months in a year. Solar power projects can be established in most parts of the country. The capital expenditure on such projects is around $ 3 million per MW. Power is available only during the day light hours and can supplement the national grid when it is under peak load conditions. Solar energy is not a base source of power and therefore is not suitable to run industries which need power on twenty four hour basis. Wind power is another source of cheap and clean electricity. Important wind corridors exist in the south of Sindh at Gharo and also in the western part of Balochistan between Chaghi and the Iran-Pakistan border. Wind flow averaging fifteen knots is available but the capital expenditure on wind turbines is $ 3.3 million per MW. Technically, wind turbines are produced in the range between 0.5 to 2.5 MW. The current research indicates that the first ten MW wind turbine will not be forthcoming before 2017. In this scenario, turbines can be installed in villages and small towns only to meet the local power needs. Pakistan fortunately is gifted with large resources of natural gas which are predominantly in Balochistan at Sui and also spread over large areas of the Potohar plateau, upper Sindh, and some parts of South Punjab. Electricity produced by burning local natural gas costs about Rs. 5 per KWh. The pollution issues are also very low. However, burning gas for power production is like feeding a fire with dollar bills to boil a cup of tea. Natural gas can be more fruitfully utilized to produce fertilizer, diesel, methanol, naphtha and pharmaceuticals. There are several fertilizer factories in Pakistan based on natural gas. The production of diesel and motor spirit etc., is less known in Pakistan at the moment. A power production plant based on a boiler, steam turbine and generator has a typical efficiency of 25 to 30%. If natural gas is used in such a plant, it would amount to a criminal waste of natural resources. A more efficient power plant is based on Integrated Gas Combined Cycle (IGCC). These plants can use gas fuel and produce electricity with an efficiency of 45-55%. A decision was taken in 1987 to start power production from Sui Gas (Natural gas). 95 % of Pakistan's gas fired power plants were boiler/steam turbine units with an efficiency of 25-30%. Upto the year 2005, Sui Gas was plundered in this fashion mercilessly. The first warning bell was sounded when the pipeline pressure began to drop significantly. The country started to experience serious gas loadshedding which is increasing year by year upto the present time. When the Planning Commission of Pakistan called the Managing Directors of the Generation Companies (GENCOS) as well as the bosses of WAPDA to investigate why the natural gas resources of the country were wasted on inefficient power generation plants instead of establishing more efficient Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) units, the responsibility of taking this wrong decision fell on the bureaucracy of WAPDA. Of course, most of those responsible had retired by then. In Pakistan, nuclear power reactors have been operating since 1969. The first such reactor had a capacity of 137 Megawatt Electrical (MWe) and was commissioned on the out skirts of Karachi. Chashma-I and Chashma-II of 300 MWe each are operating at a site near Chashma. Two more nuclear power plants Chashma-III and Chashma IV will come into operation by the end of next year. A larger nuclear power plant with a capacity of nearly 1050 MWe is underway. It will take 5 years to complete. The capital expenditure on nuclear power plants is currently $ 4.5 million per MWe, which is the highest for any type of power generation system. Fuel for the power plants has to be imported as Pakistan lacks large quantities of uranium deposits. The cost of power production including the depreciation cost for the life of the plant is nearly Rs. 6 per KWh. Coal is found in some areas of Balochistan, the salt range of Punjab, at Bannu in KPK, and over a very large area of south-eastern Sindh. The quality ranges between sub-bituminous down to the lowest quality lignite coal. The best quality anthracite coal which looks like hard rock is very rare in Pakistan. This year, the government has signed with foreign investors mainly from China and also from the Middle East to set up several coal fired power plants in Pakistan. Ten units of 6400 MW each are planned for Gadani and in addition, similar units are to be set up at Port Qasim, Jamshoro and Sahiwal. Power generation is intended from imported coal which would be unloaded on a new jetty at Gadani and Port Qasim. The cost from imported coal would be around Rs. 14 to 16 Per KWh. A more serious implication of indiscriminate burning of coal in boilers is the environmental damage that will inevitably ensue. Pollutants which are commonly discernable to the eye are in the form of smoke which is essentially carbon particles. The content ranges between 70 to 90 milligrams per cubic metre of the chimney smoke. The invisible pollutants constitute oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur and carbon monoxide. There are serious threats to health such as lung diseases and cancer. During my visit to China to attend a conference on Underground Coal Gasification, I travelled thousands of kilometres from the extreme East Coast near Shanghai to the north-west of Ganzhou province. It was observed that in the vast landscape of China, the laying down of long power transmission lines has been avoided obviously to minimize costs and line losses. Every small village or town had its own power generation system based on coal burning in boilers connected to steam turbines. An elaborate system of railway lines brought coal from far and near to these power plants. At every population centre chimneys were belching smoke into the sky. Nearly 40% of sunlight was blocked. At night the moon and the stars were not visible. One evening, a few drops of rain fell on my skin as I stepped out to get dinner and the acid rain created blisters on my hands. The extent of pollution in this large country has reached phenomenal levels. In the early morning rush, people commute with masks on their faces. Towards the end of my visit, I picked up the news on the local television that the Government of China had put a ban on the burning of coal to generate electricity in 17 provinces of the country from the east to the west. The government directive suggested to put up coal gasification plants and generate power not by burning coal but by using coal gas as fuel. This would obviously overcome the monster of environmental pollution. It will not happen overnight but would take several years. The largest coal field in Pakistan exists in the eastern part of Sindh. This coal field was accidentlly discovered when tube wells were being sunk at several locations in search of sweet water. Every time some coal was detected. The Geological Survey of Pakistan was tasked to go for an extensive test drilling effort to ascertain the total area and content of coal. This vast deposit of coal discovered by chance came out to be the third largest deposit of coal in the world. One hundred & seventy five billion tons of lignite coal was discovered in an area of 9600 sq. km. The coal occurs in seven coal seams, the principal coal seam being at an average depth of 170 metres below the surface and it contains 75% of the total coal. The top most coal seam is at a depth of 135 metres. The coal has a fairly low sulfur content averaging 1%. It has a moisture content of between 30 to 40%. Lignite coal is essentially coal particles compressed together. It is porous through which compressed air can travel freely. The principal coal seam is sandwiched between two layers of hard stone, five metres thick above and three metres thick below the coal. The carbon particles of the coal diffuse into the rock above and below as if the coal seam is welded into the rock. When compressed air is injected at high pressure into the coal seam, the high pressure is sustained in the coal indicating that the seam is hermetically sealed and there is no leakage of gas from the coal into the surroundings. There is one hydrological aspect of the underground coal seams which is very relevant to the mining of Thar Coal. When rain falls in the Thar area, the rain water penetrates through the top 75 metres of sand layer and accumulates on a layer of clay, through which water cannot penetrate, forming the first aquifer of water which ranges between 7 to 10 metres in depth. The people of Thar normally pump out this water and use it for domestic consumption. This water has Total Dissolved Salt (TDS) of nearly 2000 parts per million (PPM). To people living in the cities of Pakistan accustomed to drinking mineral water (TDS 200), the water from the first aquifer would taste fairly brackish. However, the people of Thar have no choice but to drink this water. Again at a depth of 140 metres, there exists a second aquifer of water which is sitting on top of an impenetrable layer of clay stone and has a depth of 12 metres. This aquifer is fed from sea water which has almost reached Badin after global warming has raised the level of the Indian Ocean by 15 inches. The water in the second aquifer has a TDS of 9000 PPM. It is unfit for human consumption and agriculture. In the event of open pit mining, water from both the above aquifers will be dumped into the coal seam below. Detailed mathematical modelling has revealed that in a mine of 2 km x 2 km, one hundred & fifty five cusecs of water will have to be continuously pumped out before the mining of coal can be attempted. This pumping cost would add up to the mining cost. Electricity produced as a result of mining of Thar Coal may, therefore, reach Rs. 14 per KWh. The science and technology division of the Planning Commission of Pakistan envisaged a project based on 'Underground Coal Gasification for Power Generation' at Thar Coal Fields. This technology is adopted worldwide where mining of coal is uneconomical, either due to the existence of water aquifers or due to prohibitively great depths. Wells are drilled and lined with steel pipes reaching the coal seam from the top. Typically a one kilometre long row of twelve vertical gas wells is drilled first and then connected in the coal seam at the bottom with Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) machine using the technique of magnetic guidance. This machine has a capability of drilling a horizontal hole four feet in diametre upto length of 1.6 km and at a depth of upto 3000 metres below the surface. These HDD machines were first invented to connect pockets of oil or gas at great depth so that output could be taken out from a single well. High pressure air containing 60% oxygen is injected into the first well after igniting the coal at its bottom. As the fire builds up temperatures of upto 1300 degree celsius, the water inherently present in the lignite converts to steam. In the presence of oxygen, steam and high temperatures, coal converts into coal gas. Coal gas produced in the coal seam comes out from the next well. As the coal is consumed, the fire progresses forward along the row of wells converting more and more coal into gas. Coal, 25 metres on either side of the row of the wells and upto the full thickness of the coal seam, is converted into the coal gas. Several such rows of wells yield millions of cubic feet of coal gas per day. Raw coal gas is processed through a purification plant in much the same way as natural gas is cleaned. Impurities such as ash, tar, sulfur and moisture are removed during the cleaning process and pure dry gas is available for any of the several uses it can be put to. The heat value of the gas can be as high as 3000 K calories per cubic metre. It is suitable for power generation and for the production of diesel, methanol, pharmaceuticals, plastics, chemicals for aerospace industry, hydrogen and ammonia for fertilizer. The coal gas purification plant will be commissioned by October 2014. The underground coal gasification project for generation of 100 MW of electricity was initially recommended by the Planning Commission and approved in December 2010 by Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) at a cost of Rs. 8.5 billion. The project was to be fully funded and completed in two years. The Thar Coal Energy Board (TCEB) of the government of Sindh facilitated the above federally funded project with the allocation of Block-V at the Thar Coal Field having an area of 64 sq. km containing 1.34 billion tons of coal. All administrative support from the government of Sindh is given through a Board of Governors established for implementation, monitoring and smooth running of the project. To date, a sum of Rs. 1.9 billion has been issued by the Ministry of Finance. With this 22% release of funds in four years, the infrastructure consisting of three vertical drilling rigs, one Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) machine have been acquired. Power generation system for eight MW has been contracted and half of this system has reached the site. With further release of funds, this project can extend its power generation upto any level that the government requires. The drilling of gas wells eliminates the problems of aquifers. The powdered nature of lignite facilitates the rapid progress of coal gasification phenomena in the coal seam. The sandwiching of coal within stone layers ensures that high pressure coal gas produced comes out through the gas wells and is not lost in the surroundings underground. The coal gas also cannot come in contact with aquifers thereby eliminating the possibility of contamination of water. The thickness of the principal coal seam averages ten metres, thereby giving a production life of ten years to a single row of wells. All these features make underground coal gasification the best possible choice at Thar. It seems that nature has tailor-made the lignite deposits for the process of underground coal gasification. The capital expenditure in the above process is $ 2 million per MW. The cost of production of electricity for a 100 MW plant (which is not a big plant) is estimated to be Rs. 4 per KWh and this cost includes the life of the wells, the depreciation of the purification plant, power generation system as well as the running costs. Insha'Allah the first ever electricity generation from Thar Coal is expected by spring 2015. This power plant comes at the lowest capital investment and the lowest production cost per KWh of all power generation systems in existence. The crowning glory is that there is no possibility of pollution during power generation and global warming is also avoided when carbon dioxide, produced in the plant, is stored in underground cavities produced as a result of coal removal during the process of underground coal gasification. This is called carbon dioxide sequestration and will earn the project carbon units from the United Nations. A free flow of funds from the Federal Government and a continued support of the government of Sindh will one day turn block-V into a huge chemical complex where in addition to thousands of Megawatts of electricity, millions of barrels of diesel at under $ 40 per barrel, cheap fertilizer and other products would be forthcoming. Thar Coal Power Company (TCPC) Pvt. Limited at Block-V has already been created and listed in the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP). The platform is set to attract foreign investment and joint ventures in the project.
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