The Alpha Foundation has awarded nearly $500,000 in funding to two research teams from West Virginia University (WVU) in the US, working on industrial safety technologies.

The funding will be used to research and develop a methane measurement network and a new pillar design to improve mine safety.

The first team, led by associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Derek Johnson, will develop the methane measurement system to continuously measure methane concentrations and velocity along the full length of walls in longwall coal mines. The system will measure and report data in ‘nearly real-time’, according to the university, using sensors at the front and rear ends of the canopy of supports.

“The measured methane concentration distribution can be used as an algorithm input to decide whether the shearer should be de-energised before advancing into potentially explosive methane-air pockets,” said Johnson. “The methane concentration distribution along the rear end of the shield canopy will enable the development of an improved bleeder ventilation plan.”

The team will compare the methane data with the shearer location and ventilation flow rates to estimate the rate at which methane is release from the coal seam, enabling them to predict how and where methane will be released.

The second team, led by assistant professor of mining engineering Ihsan Berk Tulu, will develop a geology-based overburden model for the most effective design of tunnel pillars. The team hopes that by studying the impact of overburdening on pillar stability, collapses and accidents can be reduced.

“The recent Analysis of Retreat Mining Pillar Stability LaModel programme – or ARMPS-LAM – which was developed at WVU, was an initial step toward incorporating mechanistic overburden behaviour into pillar design,” said Tulu.

“We will build upon previous WVU research and incorporate the specific geology and structural competence of the overburden and the in-situ horizontal stresses into the mechanical response of the overburden.”

The Alpha Foundation is a private foundation that aims to ‘improve the human condition’ through providing grants to educational, scientific and charitable organisations. The foundation has worked with WVU in the past, providing funding to a brain-sensing headband to monitor workers’ fatigue and warn them of approaching vehicles, to improve surface mining safety.