WVU engineers receive funding to improve methane sensor technology in longwall mines

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Researchers at West Virginia University are working towards creating a network of methane sensors to make longwall mining safer.

Longwall mining is a mining technique capable of fully extracting large panels of coal, according to a WVU press release. However, since methane gas is trapped inside coal, it can dangerous leading to explosions if it can be found at a volume of five to 15 percent in the air and the danger increases when the effects of methane and coal dust combine in the mine. Even if methane is found at only one to two percent in the air, it can lead to delays in the production of mining. That is why one of the researchers Derek Johnson, an associate professor, said the work he and colleagues are doing is important.

Johnson

We’ve evaluated two different cost-effective methane sensors and are evaluating a third now. And what we’re actually doing is building a network of cost-effective sensors across the entire longwall face that will enable us to monitor at multiple locations both in space and time so that we can have a better understanding of how the methane concentration changes to avoid the dangerous events that could lead to an explosion and also to help the industry by preventing those work stoppages.

Derek Johnson – Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the Statler College

The sensors, Johnson said, will alert mine operators ahead of time as methane builds up, allowing them to take corrective actions to bring levels down and avoid a stoppage. Hopefully, he said, by having a large network of sensors across the entire longwall face companies can keep employees safe and operate without too many unforeseen stoppages.

Johnson said he understands there are some that may ask why this technology is being developed when coal is looking less and less feasible as a source of energy in the future, but he said those people have to look at the bigger picture.

“The technology applies to mining in general and there’s going to be a significant use in the future of met coal — for metal production, so it’s not going to go anywhere anytime soon,” Johnson said. “Developing technology that allows it to be even more safe than it is now, that’s what we feel really good about.”

Johnson said the current sensors they are developing are part of the second phase of research based on an initial phase. He said the project is funded by the Alpha Foundation to help the entire longwall mining industry find a cost-effective and safer way to operate.

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