Methane: Handle with Care
An explosion yesterday in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia is responsible for at least 25 deaths. Another four miners are still missing, but rescue missions have reportedly been called off due to dangerous levels of methane gas. Once the underground tunnels are ventilated, a process being assisted through the drilling of holes in the side of the mine to allow more oxygen to enter, rescue and recovery operations can continue.
The New York Times reported that officials hold out hope that the four missing miners may have reached a nearby safe house within the network of mines, a space where they could potentially survive for up to four days.
The cause of the explosion is as yet undetermined, but there is speculation that methane gas built up in a section of the mine that had been sealed off.
Methane: Good and Bad
A natural gas that appears both in nature and can be created through processes like composting, methane is used to provide heat and electricity. It also can be used to power some cars. However, as a "greenhouse gas," methane emissions may contribute to the problem of global warming and climate change.
On a smaller scale, an immediate danger is that in concentration, methane is flammable and explosive. While methane is non-toxic, it can be dangerous in an area without adequate ventilation because it can displace oxygen, causing asphyxiation. In other words, methane can take over the space it is in, diluting or pushing aside the available oxygen we need to breathe.
The Coal Connection
Coal mining produces methane, and so methane exists naturally within underground tunnels where mining occurs. Burning coal also emits methane gasses.
Biogas and Biomass
The following Science Buddies project ideas explore issues related to composting and biomass and touch upon issues related to methane production, harnessing, and ventilation. There is a reason that a landfill can't simply be turned into a compost pile, and it's directly related to the risks of methane.
To understand better what may have happened in the mine in West Virginia and to explore the ways in which methane comes up in current alternative and sustainable energy research, check out these project ideas:
- Decomposing Energy: Extracting Heat Energy from a Compost Pile (Science Buddies Difficulty Level: 8)
- From Trash to Gas: Biomass Energy (Science Buddies Difficulty Level: 4-6)
- Go Green by Growing Green: How to Extract Energy from Grass (Science Buddies Difficulty Level: 4)
For information on the mining disaster:
The New York Times: Rescue Suspended at Mine as Death Toll Reaches 25
The New York Times: Toll Mounts in West Virginia Coal Mine Explosion
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