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The Warsaw Voice » Other » October 28, 2009
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Mines and More
October 28, 2009    wersja polska »
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Prof. Józef Dubiński, director-general of the Central Mining Institute (GIG) in Katowice, talks to Ewa Dereń.

The Central Mining Institute is a research and development center that provides services to many other industries, not just the mining sector. Why the name then?

We provide fundamental research for the mining industry, and our key specialties are mining and geoengineering. In these fields, the institute works with mines, coal companies, companies working for the mining sector, universities and research institutes. However, in its search for new areas of business, GIG has also developed other research fields, especially those related to environmental engineering. This has significantly expanded our market. Environmental engineering includes waste management, water management and air protection-the market in this case isn't just Silesia and the mining sector but the whole country. Furthermore, GIG is an EU Notified Body in the area of three directives: machinery, explosions (ATEX directive), and explosives for civilian use. That also extends our customer base, as explosion risk exists in all kinds of factories. Methane explodes in mines, grain dust may explode in agriculture, and coffee may pose an explosion risk in the food industry, for example. In all these cases, the EU's ATEX directive imposes the need to check out the potential for such an explosion through risk analyses. These are performed by our specialist laboratories dealing with industrial safety.

Thus, even though the mining of mineral resources is GIG's strategic area of research and development, we don't have just one strategic customer. We are not focused exclusively on coal mining; the mining sector accounts for only 20-25 percent of our revenue. Our technical and technological experience in mining can be successfully transferred to other areas of the economy, which is why today GIG provides services to companies from practically all industrial sectors. This diversification of research fields and market products in the form of research services is an effective instrument of financial stability for us, especially in this time of crisis.

Our partners also include local governments and state administration bodies. We have foreign partners all over the world. The market of buyers for our services is growing all the time, in terms of both the subject matter and geography.

Can only a large research center handle such an extensive range of business?

I believe that research centers shouldn't be too small because they simply won't cope in a tough market situation. Most research and development centers benefit from government financing to the tune of only 20-30 percent, which means they have to earn the remaining 70 percent or so on the market. That's not so easy, unless you have a large group of specialists educated in different fields. Without this, it would be hard to handle larger projects and nearly impossible to take part in several major projects at a time. Furthermore, many projects require financial contributions from the institutions involved, something that small institutes can seldom afford. GIG doesn't have these problems; with a staff of 540, we are one of the largest institutes in Poland. We have a highly qualified staff and experience in a broad range of areas, which allows us to carry out large projects and join various consortia. GIG also has unique databases and specialist laboratories and testing grounds. This gives us a leading scientific and market position and a good financial standing. That the situation is stable is proved by the fact that we keep hiring new staff. Last year, we hired 30 people, and this year we have taken on 45 so far, most of them recent university graduates. All of them meet our stringent qualification requirements, also in terms of fluency in foreign languages. We offer them excellent conditions for professional growth and for developing their skills and careers.

Few research and development centers or government-run institutes in Poland are allowed to confer scientific degrees and titles. Why is GIG an exception?

The GIG Scientific Council has been authorized to confer doctoral and postdoctoral degrees in mining and engineering geology since 1961 and in environmental engineering since 1998. We can also make official requests to have professorial titles conferred on our staff members. This fact alone testifies to the high qualifications of our staff. The institute employs 12 professors, 14 academics with postdoctoral degrees and 90 with Ph.Ds. Among the other staff, 256 employees are university graduates. The number of university graduates among our employees has been growing consistently for years.

This hiring policy has produced tangible results; every year the institute's employees win prestigious prizes in both domestic and foreign competitions and at various international innovation exhibitions. We at GIG have adopted a special strategy of scientific staff development whereby scientific dissertations are strictly connected to the institute's research agenda. At the same time, we enable our employees to work closely with other research centers in Poland and abroad, for example in the course of foreign research visits. We give publishing priority to postdoctoral dissertations and professorial monographs, and we also grant special prizes to dissertation supervisors. Employees receive one-off prizes for obtaining a Ph.D. and a postdoctoral degree, and those holding such degrees are eligible for regular bonuses. GIG employees constantly upgrade their qualifications by undertaking Ph.D. and postgraduate studies and by taking part in training courses, in particular courses on quality, environmental and occupational health and safety management systems. Last year, training courses financed by the institute cost over zl.120,000.

GIG is known for its efficient management system. What is the secret behind it?

The institute includes a Certification Unit that is authorized by the Polish Center for Accreditation to certify goods, personnel skills and management systems. We also have 17 laboratories accredited by the Polish Center for Accreditation, including 15 research labs, two calibration laboratories and one research lab that additionally has a certificate of approval from Lloyd's Register Quality Assurance for its quality management system meeting the ISO 9001 standard.

GIG was the first research institute in Poland to launch an Integrated Management System for quality, occupational health and safety, and environmental protection.

What are GIG's main research directions and tasks?

Our most important statutory goal involves work safety in mining; a large part of the institute's scientific and intellectual capacity is concentrated there. This special experience in dealing with work safety in mining can be successfully used in industrial safety in a general sense. The system of work safety management support developed at GIG can be used in any large company.

Another research field involves improving the efficiency of mining and minimizing its impact on the environment. Our priority is sustainable development, a principle under which the production of minerals must not only be efficient but also meet the requirements of occupational safety and environmental protection and be acceptable to the community. This means there is a need for an interdisciplinary research that encompasses geoengineering, environmental engineering in mining and post-mining areas, social issues as well as energy security based on using coal as fuel.

Today, Clean Coal Technologies (CCT) are a special challenge. These are different industrial technologies that use coal as fuel. CCT are mainly energy technologies, but GIG is taking an active part in researching and developing them because new advanced technologies combine issues related to energy, mining and chemicals.

The choice of research topics at the institute at a given time is also influenced by our revenue structure. This particularly involves revenue from research services based on the application of research results in business. This form of activity allows GIG to apply the results of its research and development work in industry. The priority research topics are those for which there is market demand.

How many projects does the institute handle annually?

Last year, our research teams carried out over 100 statutory tasks, 91 research projects of various kinds and over 6,000 research service jobs for both Polish and foreign customers. We carried out 20 projects of our own and seven commissioned projects, including one as part of a consortium of 14 research institutions where GIG was the main contractor. We also handled four development projects and 15 special-purpose projects in Poland, in addition to a total of 21 projects as part of various European programs.

What kind of work does the institute handle for external customers?

Our research services cover a broad spectrum of areas. In mining and geoengineering, our research work is related to issues such as work safety management, combating gas and dust hazards and endogenous fires, blasting safety, explosion-proof protection, rock bursts and rock mechanics, mining geology and geophysics, utilization of methane from mines, mineral enrichment and utilization, solid fuel quality evaluation, mining technology, testing of mechanical devices, protective equipment, and surface and structure protection. We also deal with problems related to issues such as the need to shut down a mine. In environmental engineering, GIG carries out research projects involving problems such as environmental monitoring, water and sewage management, waste management, air protection, radiological protection of the environment, the use of plastics and non-metal materials in environmental engineering, environmental inspections and reports.

Some of these general topics are worthy of special note. In studies of mining-induced seismic risk, GIG has developed a unique tomography method that allows us to monitor changes occurring in the structure of rock burst-generating rock mass layers as a result of mining. The seismological observation system developed by GIG's specialists is highly valued across the world, including China. The institute has also developed an original hydraulic rock mass fracturing technology that effectively reduces the danger of rock bursts. We are also working to develop an integrated hazard management method for coal mines.

In the area of combating fire hazards, GIG specialists have developed an original innovative method for the early detection of endogenous fires. The method makes it possible to monitor and predict fire hazards.

In environmental engineering, GIG has developed a technology for removing radium from mining waters and sediments; the technology has gained worldwide recognition. GIG also takes credit for developing advanced technologies for utilizing mine waste dumps.

A lot of the safety research is carried out at GIG's Barbara Experimental Mine, the only site of its kind in Europe. What makes the mine special?

Apart from a testing ground on the surface, the Barbara Mine has an underground testing area, which is in fact unique in Europe, so we conduct research for foreign partners there as well. The mine is in Mikołów, less than 20 kilometers from the center of Katowice. It has two levels where various phenomena can be studied in real conditions. The main aim of the work there is to investigate methane and dust hazard, including that involving industrial dust, to study explosives and the safety of spark-protected devices.

Controlled coal dust explosions are carried out in the experimental drift. Analysis of these makes it possible to determine the effectiveness of methods for protecting mines from explosions. This is also where we prepare various expert opinions and assessments related to this major mining hazard. Another system determines the explosiveness of industrial dust.

GIG also tests the effectiveness of dust extraction systems and measures dustiness at workstations. Another group of studies at the Barbara Mine involves developing new and improving existing blasting agents. Our specialists assess the risk of blasting jobs, prepare expert opinions and certify blasting agents and equipment. We also carry out certification tests of equipment, protection systems and explosion-proof systems. Work is in progress to improve methods for assessing industrial disaster risk. Today every industrial facility has to have an explosion protection document as required by the ATEX directive.

You became GIG's director in 2001; Poland joined the European Union a few years later. How has the country's EU entry changed the institute's position in relations with foreign partners?

Even before that, the institute took part in various joint projects with partners from the EU15. We were there as observers; we were invited to take part in various projects, but we didn't have any real influence on many matters, nor could we receive any funding. That changed when Poland became an EU member. We developed intensive international ties right away. We take part in various opinion-forming European groups, bodies that develop EU legislation; our employees are members of technical committees that draw up European directives. One of our employees was transferred three years ago to work at the Joint Research Center Institute for Energy in Petten in the Netherlands. He comes up with many new ideas there, and we have quite a few European projects in the works.

We take an active part in EU Framework Programs. We carried out seven projects under the 6th FP and have three projects under way as part of the 7th FP, though this particular program is tough for Polish research institutions because it focuses on really big topics. We are currently carrying out eight projects under the Research Fund for Coal and Steel. There are many other specialist programs we take part in. I think that at present we have achieved quite a strong position in the European Research Area in mining and environmental engineering as well as in work to find new uses for coal. GIG employees take part in the work of major international bodies, such as the Coal Advisory Group, the Advisory Council of the European Technology Platform for Zero-Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plants (ETP ZEP), and the Executive Committee of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Clean Coal Center.

What countries does the institute work with outside the European Research Area?

With all the leading mining countries around the world, such as China, the United States, Australia, India, Mexico, Vietnam, Russia, South Africa and many others. One of the most recent developments was the signing, in February 2009, of a letter of intent between GIG and the Australian government's Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism on establishing the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI). Under this letter of intent, GIG is a founding member of the GCCSI. Setting up the GCCSI is an initiative by the Australian government, which plans to assign 100 million Australian dollars annually for its operations. The institute's main aim will be to support a program to build 20 CCS demonstration facilities around the world to accelerate the application of the technology for carbon capture and storage in the energy sector.

In June last year, GIG and the Institute for the Chemical Processing of Coal in Zabrze signed a memorandum on cooperation with the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). This is the only agreement of this kind that the U.S. institute has signed in Poland. The cooperation involves the exchange of information, scientists as well as joint research and development projects, especially in the field of coal gasification, advanced technologies for handling carbon dioxide, its storage and joint combustion of coal with other fuels, and also production of liquid fuels from coal. The NETL has four research laboratories that lead the way in carrying out the U.S. clean coal program. We hope this cooperation will contribute to a more effective use of our research teams.

The Institute for the Chemical Processing of Coal is GIG's partner in the largest clean coal program currently in progress in Poland-the planned construction of the Clean Coal Technology Center in Silesia. How advanced is this work?

It's very advanced. As the beneficiary and coordinator of the project, GIG has already invested substantial funds, but the project has faced delays for various reasons. This isn't a research project but an investment project involving the construction of buildings, process lines, laboratories and so on. Research won't begin until later. The facility has been planned as a clean coal technology research center for all of Europe, with unique pilot systems, including those for coal gasification under pressure, coal combustion in oxygen, and underground gasification. These pilot systems are a key part of the project because Poland has no testing ground of this kind. Other countries in Europe also have few of them because these are very costly projects. Combustion under pressure, or oxycombustion, is still a new thing in the world, just like gasification under pressure for special purposes. All this is supposed to be ready in 2011. No university in Poland has this kind of system and won't have one by that time, so we have signed agreements with the Silesian University of Technology and the Chemistry Department of the University of Silesia stating that future engineers will be trained there. These are completely new things, and if clean coal technologies are to be widely used in industry, specialists will have to be trained somewhere.

Clean Coal Technology is a broad concept; it also covers issues such as underground coal gasification, geological storage of carbon dioxide, new methods of producing hydrogen, energy efficiency, effective processing of biomass into fuels and chemical products. Will GIG be involved in all these fields of research?

Most of these issues are part of the energy industry, which uses coal as fuel, but in advanced technology the energy, mining and chemical aspects are closely related and intertwined, while these technologies are an opportunity for the entire economy. Poland's energy sector is based on coal. We cannot afford to switch the country over to gas, as that would make us almost completely reliant on gas imports. On the other hand, we have substantial coal and lignite resources that can be a source of energy for a long time to come, guaranteeing energy security for the country. That's why I think that, since we are condemned to coal, developing CCT is fully justified. Even that won't help, though, unless we improve the efficiency of the energy sector. Power units at Polish power plants are old and run down; they are about 31-33 percent efficient, whereas the figure achieved elsewhere in the world is anything up to 50 percent. The amount of coal used is proportional to the efficiency of energy generation. So, it's yes to developing CCT, but also yes to investing in the modernization of the energy sector.

What kind of CCT research is GIG pursuing at the moment?

One of the most important projects right now is Hydrogen Oriented Underground Coal Gasification for Europe (HUGE), in which the focus is on obtaining hydrogen. It is being co-financed by the European Commission under the Research Fund for Coal and Steel. GIG is coordinating the project, which has 10 other partners. As part of this project, a pilot coal gasification system has been built at the Barbara Mine, and a series of experiments are currently under way, involving coal gasification in a ground-based reactor that simulates the conditions of deposits under ground. Aboveground experiments should provide information needed for an underground experiment that we will begin by the end of this year. The aim of HUGE is to develop a model for a mine of the future where coal will be gasified underground and where gas rich in hydrogen will be the energy source transported to the surface. Together with the gasifying agent, calcium oxide will be supplied to the coal deposit, to bind carbon dioxide. Thanks to this, gas rich in hydrogen will be transported to the surface, while carbon dioxide-the gas responsible for the greenhouse effect-will be stored in caverns formed where the gasified coal used to be. This kind of technology would offer a chance to utilize coal from deposits that are not mined due to excessive costs caused by unfavorable geological conditions. The project started two years ago and is due to end in June 2010.

The institute is also working on the geological storage of carbon dioxide. We are taking part in a major project commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment and aimed at identifying the geological impact of carbon dioxide storage in Poland. The coordinator here is the Polish Geological Institute. We are tasked with studying the Silesia, Podbeskidzie and Opole regions. We recently took part in a study involving the Bełchatów power plant, which will probably be the site for one of the EU's pilot zero-emission power plants. The area where holes for carbon dioxide injection will be drilled has been chosen; we will soon see how the operation works in practice.

What is the state of research on producing liquid fuels from coal? Doesn't GIG have substantial experience in this field?

It's not just GIG; such attempts have a long history in the world. Today South Africa can boast of sizable production of liquid fuels from coal, but it's important to note that their coal is cheap because it comes from open-pit or shallow mines.

GIG has a complete, fully developed coal liquefaction technology. In the 1970s, the institute had a carbon chemistry center working on coal liquefaction as part of the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Fund; it even worked with partners in the United States. The result was a technological project for producing methanol. Two of the institute's cars were test-driven with this fuel. This program was terminated in 1993 because funds ended due to economic changes in Poland. We didn't manage to get a new grant, and nobody wanted to buy the fuel because it was four times as expensive as regular gasoline. The installation was dismantled. However, this is still a popular problem and once in a while someone approaches us with a proposal to analyze the profitability of building a coal liquefaction system. At the current development stage of technology and given the coal prices in Poland, this project is still unprofitable. Nevertheless, the future CCT Center will include an experimental station for coal liquefaction. Perhaps solutions will emerge one day that will reduce the costs of such production. Besides, we want to take advantage of the know-how of people who worked on the 1970s project.

Your institute has developed a number of inventions that have made their mark around the world. Could you give some examples?

Let me mention a few more recent ones. In 2007 and 2008, we won gold medals at the Eureka World Exhibition of Innovation, Research and New Technologies in Brussels, first for our noise monitor-a system for monitoring noise in the outside environment, and then for a laser system for controlling the geometric parameters of mineshaft pipes and mineshaft reinforcements. Also in 2008, we had a huge success at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Shanghai when GIG's ultraviolet radiometer with a laser distance finder won a gold medal at the World Cup of Computer Implemented Inventions, a competition held by the International Federation of Inventors' Associations (IFIA).

Other awards include a European Medal for a project called "A Method and System for Monitoring Noise in the Outside Environment" and a special mention in the Polish Ecology Pantheon competition for our geothermal system for using mine waters to heat the Silesian Museum.

Last year, we also won an award from the Katowice branch of the Business Center Club for maintaining a leading position on the market for many years. This year, GIG was the only research center to win plaudits in the Ambassador of the Polish Economy competition organized by the Business Center Club under the auspices of Poland's foreign minister. The aim of this competition is to reward companies and institutions that are successful in international markets, are reliable business partners and promote high economic and financial standards and best business practice in foreign contacts. We received an award in the Creator of 21st-Century Solutions category.

All these prizes and awards are satisfying but they are mostly about prestige. We care more about commercial success. One of the biggest successes of this kind in recent years was the sale of our Seismological Observation System (SOS) to Chinese mines. We also set great store by the patents we obtain. Every year we submit over 10 invention designs to the Polish Patent Office; last year we submitted 12. We obtain a similar number of patents and protection rights for utility patterns every year; last year these numbered 19.

What will be the main directions of GIG's work in the near future?

Forecasts show that coal will continue to play an important role in the Polish economy in the coming decades, so our main goals will be linked to mining and geoengineering. Here, I would like to mention work on introducing effective technologies for mining thin coal deposits. The mining sector still follows the rule of selective extraction whereby we tend to mine thicker deposits that are better in terms of quality and efficiency. Whole batches of coal in thin seams remain unmined; there's about 1 billion tons of thin-seam coal in operating mines at present. If we shut these mines down, those resources will be lost. That's why they need to be utilized alongside mining in thicker coal seams. Mining from thin seams requires special technology instead of using mechanical coal miners. Such a system is being launched at one mine. We will be interested to see the results.

Of course, our strategic goal is CCT. We would like to be successful in underground coal gasification when we transfer this technology-after the experimental stage at the Barbara Mine-to a real mine in an operation that is planned for 2011. Legislation will have to be put in place to regulate these matters, as none exists today.

Another new area that we will develop is materials engineering, or more specifically, nanotechnology in mining. In recent years, the military has come up with the idea of a nanosoldier, or a soldier outfitted with clothing and equipment made from latest-generation materials. It is our ambition to work on similar problems with regard to miners; they would get completely different clothing, different helmets, different equipment. This will be due not only to nanomaterials but also new information transfer systems.

Bringing information technology to mining on a wider scale is another long-term goal of the institute. Design in mining, assessing mineral deposits from digital models, digital maps of coal beds-these are just some of the ideas we want to work on.

Developing new technology is also GIG's objective with regard to environmental engineering. For example, we want to modify the current technology for removing radium from mine waters to make it more effective. We are still working on new methods for desalinating mine waters so that they don't have to be pumped out and discharged into rivers. We also plan to develop geoengineering construction; this may not be a particularly complex scientific discipline, but there is a constant need for such services.

Zero-Emission Energy Project
In September, the Central Mining Institute launched a new project dedicated to zero-emission energy management in Poland until 2050. The project will be financed using funds available under the European Union's Innovative Economy Operational Program.

In the project, scientists from the Central Mining Institute and a team of experts from other research centers will study the prospects of generating energy without causing carbon dioxide emissions. The aim is to stimulate the development of Poland's energy sector on the basis of technology that would allow energy producers to rely on locally available resources while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to experts, zero-emission energy sources, such as renewables and nuclear power, play a growing role in limiting carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation processes. The same goes for energy conservation methods. In many cases, though, applying such technologies and methods causes extra social costs and has an impact on sustainable development.

The Central Mining Institute project focuses on studies of the most probable scenarios for the development of Poland's zero-emission energy sector. According to experts, the project's results will be put into practice if there is public approval for the technology and an interest among businesses.

The project will include opinion surveys to determine just to what extent the Polish energy sector is open to changes and if it is capable of making them happen. The government and the public must be prepared to pay for energy generated without carbon dioxide emissions, experts say. The project is expected to contribute to preparing long-term development plans for companies in the energy sector. Identifying possible areas of social conflict should make it easier to make strategic decisions and plan new investment projects.

Special foresight methods will be used to carry out the tasks involved. Foresight is a research tool for predicting the future. It is different from classic forecasts in that it attempts to influence the course of events. Scientists say foresight methods help create a vision of the future. In this case, the method should show just how realistic it will be in technological and social terms to replace coal with other technologies in Poland's energy industry.

The first energy foresight project carried out in Poland was completed at the Central Mining Institute in 2007. It outlined scenarios for the development of the fuel and energy sector to ensure the country's energy security.
Ewa Dereń
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