Khosla’s Clean Coal Investment Could Help Avert Mining Disasters

Natural gas startup Ciris Energy just scored $23.9 million from Khosla Ventures for an intriguing business proposition: a coal-to-natural gas process that both increases the safety of coal mining and makes natural gas production more economical. That’s a big deal for the natural gas industry, which is set to grow from 21% of U.S. energy use in 2011 to 40% in 2035.

Cirus is far from the only player in the clean coal market. OriginOil recently completed a pilot project that harvested algae from coal plant pollution, and Rentech produces jet fuel made from coal waste. But unlike the others, Cirus’s process can produce fuel without actually mining coal. The company claims that it uses a “biochemical coal conversion technology” (details are still fuzzy) to extract methane from the ground, where it can be converted into usable natural gas on the cheap.

And since Cirus can extract methane from coal without removing the coal from the ground, the company’s process can theoretically make coal mining significantly safer–methane, a natural part of coal beds, is responsible for causing explosions (including many in recent memory).

Next up for Cirus: building the world’s first plants for in-situ biochemical conversion of coal to methane, and bringing its ex-situ
biochemical coal conversion technology to market. And if we’re lucky, the startup will avert any nasty coal mine explosions.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.