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In the days after a mining disaster killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia and another accident killed at least 35 in China’s Shanxi province, experts are saying that existing technology could make coal mining significantly safer–if only it was used.

While it’s still too early to determine exactly what led to the disasters, improved monitoring of dangerous gases and coal dust could help reduce the risk of explosions like the one that occurred at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The sort of flooding that trapped miners in China could potentially be avoided with relatively simple approaches, such as drilling ahead to probe for water. Rescue efforts could be aided by improved mine assessment tools (including computer models) that can help rescuers pinpoint the location of collapsed mine areas and other problem areas.

“I strongly believe that the technology is available, and in many cases in use, for preventing mine disasters and individual fatalities,” says John Grubb, a professor of mining and earth systems engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has 40 years’ experience in the coal-mining industry.

One way new technology is not likely to help, at least in the near future, is by replacing coal miners entirely with automated machines, although in some mines it may be possible to operate machinery remotely. Some of the latest mining machinery allows operators to program them to do repetitive tasks, such as cycling back and forth across the face of a predictable mine seam. But in complex mines, it’s still essential to have a human operator present to quickly react to changing situations, says Jerry Tien, a professor of mining engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

However, sensors that can continuously monitor the levels of dangerous gases, such as methane and carbon monoxide, as well as the pressure and flow rates in ventilation systems, already exist and are used in some mines. But in most coal mines in the United States, monitoring is done only a few times a day using handheld detectors, and not continuously via a network of sensors throughout an entire mine. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Upper Big Branch Mine used handheld detectors rather than a network of continuous methane sensors.

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Credit: Jeff Gentner-Pool/Getty Images

Tagged: Energy, sensors, coal, methane, automation, disaster, explosion

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