Fighting Underground Coal Fires

A few years ago, Paul Feldman, the Bagel Man profiled in Freakonomics, wrote a guest post about the environmental effects of underground coal fires. Those fires are still burning all over the world (and still contributing significantly to carbon dioxide emissions), but a cheap, effective solution may finally exist:?CAFSCO Fire Control,?a commercial firefighting company, has successfully deployed its compressed nitrogen foam system in a number of underground coal fires. “We can put out a fire at a tenth of the usual cost, and we don’t even have to see the fire to fight it,” says Mark Cummins, the company’s founder. (HT: Marginal Revolution)[%comments]

Eric M. Jones

Having seen a couple of coal fires that came to the surface, and especially one where a hundred yards of burning coal shaft could be seen, I have often wondered how to put them out. The fire I saw fifty years ago is still burning.

I am pretty much convinced that the lack of will and money is the only issue. Since this is an economics website, perhaps the question of how the fire fighting could be financed. Perhaps the fire can be "invested in"...that is, perhaps investors could buy into stock to put out the fire. Then recoup profits from the resulting profitable mining operation.

I don't know if the CAFSCO system is some sort of good answer or not, but their patents are long expired, so I would guess they had money problems. Their published successes are few, and perhaps don't exist.

Whenever I hear people proposing fixing global warming, I reflect on the fact that humans can't even put out a mine fire. Maybe Congress could advance funding to put out all our mine fires. Cool......


John J

That CAFSCO website is completely borked in Google Chrome. Google Chrome shows a nasty image of a malformed webpage.

Why does a webpage need to run an active-x control to present text and images?

Dave Orr

Putting out a coal fire is not at all a matter of money and not will. Some fires extend for miles underground and it's very unclear how to get them out -- you can extinguish the bits you can reach, but a while later the deeper fires can restart the parts you thought you had put out.

Compressed nitrogen, or injected CO2, might nicely smother the fire, if you can locate and seal up enough of the air vents. It's a more plausible solution that anything else anyone's tried.


I suspect that the issue is a lot more complex than thought, and that there are strong constraints on the CAFSCO system. Some underground coal fires go on for many miles... You would have to seal all the exits on a very large area.

Rudiger in Jersey

As a true novice to this problem, my solution. Starve the fire of air, and it will extinguish.

There may be many vents and sources of air. Use night flights with IR to localize all hot spots from fire heat. It may be easier in winter to locate them. Plot these on a GPS work map and then systematically seal these holes or caves...of course this may effect the local ecology of bats, rodents, mushrooms, and Neanderthals.
In a week you would have extinguished a decade long burning problem.

Plan B: small yield nukes.

PS. This is the same approach to Flushing out Osama bin Ladin.


I think it a good idea but is it logical to let people buy stock in it. I don't know much about coal mining but is it functional after a fire. Also relining on the government to give money for this will never work the US is completely broke as it is why would they add to there budget.


Interestingly, while some want to put these fires out, others want to start them for the purposes of harnessing the energy. Maybe there's a way to bring these parties together for the good of mankind?


The Compressed foam system originally patented by Mark Cummins, yes, has long been expired but thats because Patents run their course, and do have an expiration date. The technique of using , the biodegradable fir-suppressing foam works in a number of ways to put out underground coal fires. Pumped into an underground mine through surface boreholes, the foam quickly expands to fill all the available space, saturating the interior of the mine from floor to ceiling, effectively soaking all the fuel and smothering the fire. The expansion of the foam also creates positive pressure in the underground spaces of the mine, forcing out any unconsumed oxygen that could further feed the fire. CAFSCO's foam differs from other types of firefighting foam in that it contains no oxygen, only nitrogen, which works chemically to blanket and smother the fire. Coal burns in less than 2% of oxygen. A major reason this technology has moved forward at a snails pace is because of the previous comments about finances, there is no financial return on fire fighting, its considered a non-productive expense. In the case of the underground coal fires the coal seams are contaminated with benzine created by the poor burning conditions of coal, and mining is generally impractical BUT, this problem has been a key focus of our latest invention which is adding microbes to our biodegradable foam, which eat the coal and create methane gas. This methane gas, captured, is valuable, cleaner burning fuel. The process is a bit complicated but we've overcome all the problems in the laboratory and have several projects already planned. Most recent is financed by the Canadian Government for a plan to extinguish a test area in the gigantic China coal fire area. As all good things go, we are suffering the usual bunch of naysayers and lack of adequate financial resources, which simply means we have to move at a much slower pace. If we could get our own government assistance we believe we could extinguish all of the polluting wasteful coal mine and coal seam fires.