The Lignite Research Council in Bismarck approved almost $243,000 for the project Thursday during a meeting at the Doublewood Inn, about half of the entire project's costs. The study will be reviewed by the North Dakota Industrial Commission Monday in Bismarck.
The two-year project would investigate Harmon lignite coal in Bowman, Slope, Golden Valley and Dunn counties, said Zhengwen Zeng, a geological engineering professor at University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. If successful, the coal could be used for underground gasification for energy use.
Coal, natural gas and oil have been major contributors to energy in the United States, Zeng said. The project leader wants to find a way to use coal in an economical and environmentally safe way.
"One of the big challenges is most of the time we use coal as a burning fuel," he said. "It's about time we consider the progress of technology and also the demand on environmental concern."
Agriculture Commissioner and Industrial Commission member Doug Goehring said he is hopeful the study will have positive findings, but he hasn't made a decision on it yet.
"I did hear a while back that there have been some successes out there," he said. "I think the question is does this work for lignite coal, because this would be a very noninvasive way of actually developing our resource here in North Dakota if we can do this with lignite coal."
More research has to be done to see if the process would be environmentally safe in North Dakota, said Vicky Steiner, executive director of North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties and alternate for the council.
"I think there has to be a lot more work done on it, and we're years away from it because there's just not enough information known about how that might work," she said.
If North Dakota could harness underground coal gasification, it would create more jobs to its energy portfolio, Zeng said.
"North Dakota has had a long tradition that we have been a leader for the coal technology, and there is no reason to give up this opportunity over here," he said. "We are in a better position to develop this technology."