Underground mines are the single largest source of coal mine methane (CMM) emissions in most countries, although CMM is also produced from surface mines and as a result of post-mining activities such as coal processing, storage, and transportation. It is a greenhouse gas that has a global warming potential (GWP) 21 times as great as CO2 thus its escape into the atmosphere is clearly to be avoided. To put the scale of methane emissions into perspective, it is estimated that by 2020 CMM emissions from the world’s coalmines will be some 40 billion cubic meters per annum, about a 30 percent increase from current levels and about 8% of the total methane emissions from human activity.

Removing methane gas from underground coal mines is a very necessary safety measure and it is only recently that there has been a realization that methane is a valuable commodity that can be burnt to create electricity, either for localized use or to be sold onto aggregators. In fact, methane can be a big revenue earner as demonstrated by UK Coal, which has pioneered the technology, and which in 2007 realized some £4.3 million profit from gas extracted from its mines, and generated enough electricity to power over 40,000 homes.

With the practice of methane drainage for power generation now on the increase, it has become vital to ensure that effective methane recovery monitoring is in place. Accurate continuous monitoring is crucial as changes in gas composition in a system can lead to engine downtime and possibly even damage, reducing revenue and endangering both plant and personnel.

The Shortcomings Of Current Methane Monitoring Methods

Current methane monitoring systems have a number of limitations. They use either thermal conductivity or infrared methane detectors. Thermal conductivity detectors measure the thermal conductivity of the whole gas sample, giving a collective reading for all the constituents of the gas, not just methane, and are therefore unreliable. Infra-red detection specifically looks for carbon-hydrogen bonds in hydrocarbon which provides an ideal means of measuring the methane content. Unfortunately, any other hydrocarbon components within the sample will also contribute to the response in an infrared detector. The heavier the hydrocarbon, the disproportionately greater the effect on the detector response. The complex mixture of hydrocarbons in CMM gas results in significantly higher responses than that due to the methane content alone, and the response can often exceed what would be expected for even 100 percent methane.

At many mines Gas chromatography is used to analyze the CMM sample gas stream, periodically measuring individual amounts of each component gas. Because samples have to be collected from the gas stream and sent to a laboratory for analysis, and the results then have to be sent back to the site, this clearly takes too much time and is far from a continuous measurement process.

New Developments In Methane Monitoring

After much research and development at Trolex a new methane monitoring system has now been introduced which uses infrared detection coupled with a unique method to measure the methane content from the sample on a continuous basis. The way this works is that an initial gas analysis is used to ‘train’ the system and subsequent analysis can be used to fine-tune the system. The contributions to the overall signal from the detector caused by methane and other hydrocarbon gases are evaluated and the methane content is derived from the overall signal and the individual contributions from the different gases. This technique provides a continuous online, high-accuracy monitoring capability for methane drainage.

Known as Sentinel, Trolex’s highly accurate new system for methane recovery monitoring is a huge step forward in addressing methane recovery, either as a stand-alone gas-to-energy project or as part of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the Joint Initiative (JI) flexible mechanisms agreed under the Kyoto Protocol. It is a fully integrated system with the advantages of maximizing safety, meeting legal and regulatory requirements as well as generating new revenue streams, all in parallel.

The Scope For New Methane Monitoring

So what are the wider opportunities that this advanced method of methane monitoring is now helping to facilitate? To give some examples captured methane can be used for purposes such as natural gas pipeline injection, electric power generation, co-firing in boilers, district heating, mine heating, coal drying, vehicle fuel, and manufacturing uses such as feedstock for carbon black, methanol, and dimethyl ether production. For the very low concentration of methane in mine ventilation air, technological development has progressed to the point that this CMM source can be oxidized and the resulting thermal energy used to produce heat, electricity, and refrigeration.

The new methane monitoring technology is the result of decades of expertise in gas monitoring, and most systems are bespoke and precision-engineered to meet the needs of each individual project in order to maximize performance. Long-term system integrity is also ensured by dedicated support for initial installation and ongoing service.

Even though the Sentinel system is new, the technology has already been installed in two coal mines in the UK and one in China and is being effectively used in a gold mine in South Africa. Most schemes are either approved or registered with the UNFCCC Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) for gas-to-energy generation, and the system has been proven in dynamic testing conditions by independent authorities.

Now that there are significant advances in methane monitoring technology available, we will undoubtedly see many more projects around the world not only benefiting from increased site safety but also protecting the environment and generating substantial additional revenue for their organizations at the same time.

Further information on the new methane monitoring technology is available from Trolex Ltd, Newby Road, Hazel Grove, Stockport, Cheshire SK7 5DY, by telephone at 0161-483-1435, email: or by visiting the company’s dedicated website