Charting the progress of coal seam gas research

Professor Sheik Rahman describes how research at UNSW has contributed to Australia becoming the world’s #1 producer of liquefied natural gas.

Sheik Rahman is a leading researcher in the areas of geothermal energy development from hot rocks, innovative technologies to enhance the efficiency of oil production, and coal seam gas technological advancement and production. Professor Sheik Rahman

“The great thing about coal seam gas, in particular, is that it has a much lower level of CO2 emissions than other sources, and it can also be widely used in its non-combustible form. For example, gas contributes to 90% of fertiliser production, which is an important component of producing high-quality food,” says Rahman, a Professor in Petroleum Engineering at the School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering, UNSW.

“Coal seam gas has always been of interest to industry because there is a big overlap with coal mining. Because we must ventilate the trapped gas from the coal mine for safety reasons, there has long been an interest in figuring out how to capture this gas. The rationale being that it is a valuable commodity in its own right and better to capture and sell rather than let it escape into the atmosphere.”

Rahman joined the University in 1989 shortly after UNSW started its petroleum engineering program, and prior to that he worked for over 10 years in the petroleum industry. He says this industry experience gave him a unique perspective when looking to advance the teaching and research aims in the School. He has witnessed significant changes in all types of resources engineering but says it has tended to advance slowly in incremental steps. The advancement of coal seam gas technology is no different.

“In the early ‘90s, there were a lot of drilling activities associated with coal seams, but despite the best efforts of several large resources companies, over the period of about a decade, they were unsuccessful in working out how to reach and capture that gas,” Rahman continues.

“Researchers like myself saw these efforts, decided to take the challenge upon ourselves and over the last 10 years we have advanced coal seam gas technology to the stage that it is now commercially viable.”

Rahman says this can be ably demonstrated by the fact that in 2019, Australia will be the largest liquefied natural gas producer in the world, overtaking Qatar in coal seam gas production.

We developed a technology to find what we call ‘sweet spots’, to make the gas production commercially viable.

Professor Sheik Rahman, School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering, UNSW

A key research focus from the start was developing technology that would allow companies to drill wells much more cheaply. “This is perhaps the number one issue we focused on, because if you’re drilling a well for coal seam gas that costs more than half a million dollars, you won’t make any money.”

He says the other key focus area was working out exactly where to drill. “If you drill a hole in one area, you might not find anything, but if you dig a hole just 100 metres away you might discover commercial quantities of gas. We developed a technology to find what we call ‘sweet spots’, to make the gas production commercially viable.

These advances were thanks, in large part, to a $5 million industry and state government funding grant in the late 1990s. “This finance was instrumental in helping us achieve these above two key focus areas, and today we are involved in gas fields in Queensland and beyond, with large projects in India and China,” he continues.

According to Rahman, UNSW’s overall contribution to coal seam gas research and development has been globally significant. Having been at the helm of many of the major research programs it has been hugely rewarding work. “Having spent over 40 years in research and development I am still full of energy and enthusiasm for the work I am doing and the legacy I will leave,” he says.

“I have been training young graduates as well as academics, and we have three brilliant UNSW Senior Lecturers in the School, Dr Peyman Mostaghimi, Dr Ryan Armstrong and Dr Furqan Hossain, who are doing exceptional research in this area.”


Written by: Penny Jones

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