Investors in the mining sector will be familiar with the recent uptick in deal activity, particularly when it comes to coal companies. The growing demand for energy in emerging markets such as China and India, along with rising steel production, has pushed up the number of companies attempting to get their hands on the black stuff, which comes in handy in power plants and steel factories alike.
But despite the rising demand, a lot of coal remains trapped in the ground. Sometimes, it is too deep or too remote. In other instances, the quality is simply not good enough to merit the investment in full-scale mining.
However, stranded coal, as it is known, can be used to generate gas. Yes, gas, effectively turning unused coal fields into lucrative gas fields, according to Matt Swinney, the managing director of Wildhorse Energy.
The company, which is set to list on Aim this week, specialises in something called underground coal gasification or UCG technology. Put roughly, the process involves drilling boreholes into the ground and blasting the coal with oxidants. This generates gas, which can then be fed directly into electrical generators.
And although similar to the technology behind shale gas, UCG does not involve the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking', which has evoked opposition from environmental groups. Instead, UCG employs techniques such as horizontal drilling and 3D seismic technologies, doing away with fracking, which involves creating fissures in underground rock with chemicals and pressurised water. If the terms sound familiar, that's because the technology is already used in the wider oil and gas sector.
Wildhorse's particular focus is on Europe, which is highly dependent on gas imports. The company, which is already listed in Australia, is eyeing the many European coal fields that cannot be mined, but can be used to provide energy security by generating gas locally.
Currently its projects, which include the Mecsek Hills development, are in Hungary, which relies on Russia for the majority of its energy needs – an appropriate backdrop for promoting UCG technology.
And while Wildhorse also has uranium assets, the focus is on UCG, which makes sense in light of the advances made in the unconventional gas market in the US.
"Unconventional gas production techniques have dramatically reshaped the US energy market over the last 10 years and are increasingly being focused upon across Europe," Wildhorse's Mr Swinney said.
"Central Europe is an attractive focus for the company due to the large amount of unexploited coal resources and its high level of reliance on gas imports, especially from Russia, which has created strong domestic demand fundamentals in the region," he said.
"Hungary, our initial focus, currently imports approximately 70 per cent of its gas requirements, and other countries such as Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, which we are targeting for expansion, import similar or greater amounts."
The business is pegging its hopes on the advantage that comes with being among the first to move ahead with new technology.
"With this in mind, we have already developed a portfolio of three strategic coal assets totalling an area of 489.1 square kilometres in Hungary which demonstrate potential suitability for UCG application, have excellent infrastructure and are in close proximity to established power stations," Mr Swinney explained.
The technology behind publishing
The advent of electronic readers and digital bookstores presents both challenges and opportunities for the publishing industry.
Although the new avenues bring access to new markets, they also call for a mastery of new technologies, and new ways of interacting with consumers. This is where Oxford-based Publishing Technology comes in.
The AIM-listed group makes software for, and provides a variety of services to, the publishing industry, including helping publishers make the most of the electronic revolution.
The business, which came about a result the 2007 merger of the Ingenta, Vista and the Publishers Communication Group, is divided into three divisions. The online services arm helps companies publish their content on the internet, and encompasses 'ingentaconnect', an e-publishing platform that hosts content from more than 16,000 publications, with over five million articles.
The division also includes the company's 'pub2web' platform, which helps customers publish their content, while maintaining full control of their brand. Users include international bodies like the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The enterprise applications division includes 'advance', the next-generation version of the well-known Vista publishing technology platform.
And then there is the Publishing Technology's marketing communications division, which provides market research, consultancy and other services.
This year is set to be busy, with the company planning to invest some £2m in its products. This looks like one worth watching, particularly in light of changes taking place on the publishing landscape.
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