China's Synthetic Gas Revolution

China's burgeoning coal power industry

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Environmentalists are celebrating that China appears to be embracing gas, and rejecting coal. But look under the green gloss, and things are not quite what they seem.

According to the BBC;

COP21: Carbon emissions ‘to stall or even decline’ this year

Global emissions of carbon dioxide are likely to stall and even decline slightly this year, new data suggests.

Researchers say it is the first time this has happened while the global economy has continued to grow.

The fall-off is due to reduced coal use in China, as well as faster uptake of renewables, the scientists involved in the assessment add.

But they expect the stall to be temporary and for emissions to grow again as emerging economies develop.

According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change and presented here at COP21 in Paris, emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and industry are likely to have fallen 0.6% in 2015.

The main cause is from decreased coal use in China. It’s restructuring its economy, but there is also a contribution from the very fast growth in renewable energy worldwide, and this is the most interesting part: can we actually grow renewable energy enough to offset the coal use elsewhere?”

Read more: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-35029962

So far so good – but where is China getting all that gas from? Scientific American, October 2014 has an explanation;

Can China’s Bid to Turn Coal to Gas Be Stopped?

The effort is an attempt to improve China’s air and increase energy security but would be a disaster for efforts to combat climate change.

BEIJING—It was first criticized by environmentalists. Then it was reined in by government officials. Now, China’s coal-fueled synthetic natural gas industry faces another blow as a group of energy experts raise doubt over its economic viability.

In a meeting recently hosted in Beijing, researchers from Chinese and Western think tanks opened fire on a long list of business risks in China’s synthetic natural gas industry, including reliance on immature technologies and their rising environmental costs and dim market prospects. If more projects are launched, the researchers asserted, it could put a dent in the nation’s financial projections.

Coal-based synthetic natural gas—a product of converting coal to natural gas through a gasification process barely existed in China until 2013. However, as the country’s demand for cleaner fuels soared last year, in line with mounting pressure to clean up air, the development of Chinese coal-to-natural-gas projects accelerated.

According to a 2014 study from Greenpeace, China currently operates two coal-to-natural-gas demonstration projects, but there are 48 other plants under construction or in planning. Once completed by 2020, those plants will produce 225 billion cubic meters of coal-fueled synthetic natural gas annually.

Read more: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-china-s-bid-to-turn-coal-to-gas-be-stopped/

The concern about reliance on immature technologies sounds like a serious impediment – except that it is not true. Coal to gas was perfected back in the 1940s by the NAZIs, after their access to oil supplies was curtailed.

The NAZIs fought the entire world to a standstill for 5 years using hydrocarbons synthesised from coal, so it seems a fair assumption that they perfected the process. All their production notes are still available in national archives.

But you don’t have to go through old archives. The process still used extensively. There are technical experts available who have current experience with synthetic hydrocarbons.

Developed by German scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in the 1920s, FT synthesis converts carbon from coal, natural gas, or wood into hydrocarbons, including propane-like gas and diesel fuel.

Nazi Germany used the technique during World War II to manufacture synthetic fuel from coal, churning out 124,000 barrels a day by 1944.

Today oil-poor South Africa uses FT synthesis to distill most of the nation’s diesel from its extensive coal deposits.

One downside to the process, however, is the output of so-called mid-size hydrocarbons—molecules with 4 to 8 carbon atoms—which can’t be used as fuel.

Read more: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/04/0418_060418_coal_energy_2.html

Why would a Chinese think tank mistakenly believe that synthesising hydrocarbons from coal is an immature technology? I haven’t got an explanation for this, though it is amusing to speculate about what really happened in those think tanks. Its not like Fischer Tropsch is an obscure process – Fischer Tropsch and its variants are amongst the most widely used processes in modern industrial chemistry. Anyone who learns Chemistry at university level, is taught about the Fischer Tropsch reaction.

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101 thoughts on “China's Synthetic Gas Revolution

  1. Before we started to use Natural Gas, we made gas from coal in much
    of Europe long before the first world war until the 1960s,
    Pretty much mature as technology but the process used at that time was polluting and the resulting gas including CO at was pretty lethal.

    • Wasn’t it called town gas? I remember the gas man converting the cooker, it was the whole UK being converted.

      • Yes, about 1970. Town gas or coal gas it was all the same. Every town of any size in UK had its gasworks. It must have been in use for the better part of 100 years. Its successor was known as North Sea gas. Different smell and because of its lower CO content impossible to commit suicide by putting one’s head in the oven. Unlit. A national gas grid was laid soon after the war ended in 1945.

      • No. They are not talking about making natural gas from coal. They are talking about making gasoline from coal, if they are talking about the case of SASOL in South Africa.
        While the process can be used to make gas, it is normally far better to make liquid fuels (gas to liquid – GTL) because they are worth so much more. They can also make polypropylene, creosote, diesel, sulphur-free kerosene and a host of other chemicals and waxes.
        SASOL has been building two plants in China for years. Are they now on line?
        Making coal gas is a heck of a lot easier than using the FT process. Town gas, they called it in England. Heat coal, spray it with water and employ the water gas shift reaction(strongly endothermic). Presto, town gas.

    • We used coal gasification in Rhodesia in the 70’s. Very effective for bread baking, paint drying on cars and the like. Sanctions made us very resourceful.

    • CD
      Yes.
      The Gas Works was – by definition – in the smellier – and less attractive – part of town.
      Any town.
      Auto – showing his age.

      • Auto: “The Gas Works was – by definition – in the smellier – and less attractive – part of town.
        The really smelly part of the process concerned the purifiers, big closed beds of iron oxide that the gas was passed through to remove the sulphur by turning the iron oxide to iron sulphide. When the pressure drop over the beds indicated that the oxide was ‘spent’, it was dug out and piled up in great stinking heaps, periodically being forked over by a JCB or similar, and the action of the atmospheric oxygen and rain converted the iron sulphide back to iron oxide, the hydrogen sulphide being released into the air, which produced the characteristic gas works smell, the process generally taking around a year to eighteen months.
        Ah, those were the days!

    • Bingo.
      Coal gas–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_gas
      “Originally created as a by-product of the coking process, its use developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries tracking the industrial revolution and urbanization. … Facilities where the gas was produced were often known as a manufactured gas plant (MGP) or a gasworks.
      “The discovery of large reserves of natural gas in the North Sea off the UK coast during the early 1960s led to the expensive conversion or replacement of most of the nation’s gas cookers and gas heaters, with the exception of Northern Ireland, from the late 1960s onwards.”

    • I think you could say the process is very low tech. I would guess the reason why the Chinese would adopt the technology is to reduce the amount of particulates in the air.

    • Yeah, I didn’t get that bit. Low hydrocarbons burn easily, therefore they can be used as fuel, though it may depend on what type of fuel is required for a specific purpose.

    • “why is high octane petroleum spirit better than low octane?”
      Ring and branched chain hydrocarbons are more resistant to detonation than straight chain, so the engine can be run with a higher compression ratio, essential for thermal efficiency.

      • Thermal efficiency does not benefit significantly from using high octasne gasoline, nor does it play much part in emissions generated by a gas powerd computer controlled gas engine.. High octane gasoline has a higher detonation point and thus allows higher compression, which means the ability to pack more fuel into the cylinder and achieve higher power output. But that’s the only advantage the fuel has.Higher octane gas actually contains less energy than lower octane fuels and there is no advantage with respect to emissions, etc

      • arthur4563: “High octane gasoline has a higher detonation point and thus allows higher compression, which means the ability to pack more fuel into the cylinder and achieve higher power output.”
        catweazle666: Wrong.
        Wrong? No, I think both of you are correct. For example, in WW2 aviation a primary objective was to increase power to weight ratio and one of the two fundamental ways to do that was indeed to “pack more fuel into the cylinder and achieve higher power output”. Yes, doing that also increased engine efficiency so that too was a benefit.

        • The Original Mike M: “one of the two fundamental ways to do that was indeed to “pack more fuel into the cylinder and achieve higher power output”. Yes, doing that also increased engine efficiency so that too was a benefit.”
          Yes, by using a supercharger, mainly to maintain power at high altitudes, use at lower altitudes would damage the engine due to excess cylinder pressure leading to detonation. Juggling the boost pressure, mixture and prop pitch on Merlin engined aircraft was an important part of the pilot’s skill set.
          Which is why Spitfires for ground attack were referred to as “clipped and cropped”, as the wings were clipped as there was no need for the extra wing area at low altitudes and the blower blades cropped because the was no need for the extra boost – in fact, it was positively dangerous.
          Incidentally, it is not commonly appreciated that a major advantage that the RAF had over the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain was highly secret supplies of tetra-ethyl lead anti-detonant from the USA, permitting higher boost pressures hence higher power output than the German methanol-water injection anti-detonant technique.

      • You are all talking about detonation and volumetric efficiency. Octane reduces detonation in high compression engines (Above 9:1 ratio). It’s why many engines use forced induction systems these days, or “how much air you can “blow” in to a cylinder”.

    • Octane rating is a confusing term. Gasoline is 6 carbon hexanes mostly, with 7 carbon branched heptanes as a smaller component. But a simple straight chain hexane (and heptane) has a very low “octane rating” and causes predetonation in piston engines that use moderate to high compression. Branching the 6 and 7 carbon molecular isomers raises the “octane rating” as these branched structures are more compact, and are thus less reactive with oxygen until the timed ignition heat pulse moves through the fuel-air mixture.

      • Octane rating is (or was when I was an automotive engineer) calculated using a test engine with a variable compression ratio.
        First the engine is run on n-heptane and the CR at which detonation occurs is noted. Then the engine is run on iso-octane and the process repeated. The scale is then divided into 100, and any other fuel can be tested and its octane rating determined. In pracice, some fuels have octane ratings in excess of 100, such as the National Benzole Mixture (containing benzene) and Cleveland Discol (containing alcohol blend).
        My old cast iron Triumph Tiger 110 with atmosphere liquifying compression ratio went like stink on Cleveland Discol – so long as you remembered to increase the size of the carburettor jets to avoid a holed piston!

      • catweazle666,
        Sounds like my ’69 Opel GT, a fun car for autocross and SCCA racing. It loved Sunoco 260, with an advertised octane rating of 103 (I think that was actually the research octane). You could still find gas stations in the Southeast that carried it back in the early ’70s, used mostly for drag racing and ‘early NASCAR driver training’.

    • It’s a rather foolish line. They can’t be used as liquid fuel in the same way as gasoline or diesel.
      Butane to Septane are quite useful chemicals and used as fuels quite a bit, but they evaporate so readily that you can’t pour them on a hot day because of the sheer amount of evaporation.

    • C4 (butane, used in pocket lighters) through C8 (octane, used in gasoline/petrol) are all viable fuels. Because they are very volatile liquids they must be used in engines specially engineered for them. They cannot be used in engines that use LPG, or in diesel engines.

    • C4 (butane, used in pocket lighters) through C8 (octane, used in gasoline/petrol) are all viable fuels. Because they are very volatile liquids they must be used in engines specially engineered for them. They cannot be used in engines that use LPG, or in diesel engines.
      All the carbon starts as coal, and ends as CO2.
      What forms the carbon may take in between are irrelevant to the net result. What ISN’T irrelevant is that there is lost efficiency at every step of the process, so the net carbon footprint per BTU output is worse with more intermediate steps. The best bet is to go directly from coal to CO2 in an efficiently designed coal-burning power plant.

  2. “molecules with 4 to 8 carbon atoms—which can’t be used as fuel.”
    Like butane, pentane, hexane, heptane and octane?

      • half the coal is converted into CO2
        =======================
        Thus providing the energy to power the reaction:
        Coal + Oxygen = CO (in a confined container)
        CO + Water = H2 + CO2
        H2 + Coal = hydrocarbons
        coal + oxygen + water = CO2 + hydrocarbons
        This process could be use to technically bypass the US EPA clean air regulations for coal fired power plants. Coal classification plants could be used to convert the coal into liquid fuel, which would produce less CO2 per unit of energy, thus falling below the EPA limit for CO2 per megawatt power generation.
        However, given the low cost of natural gas, such a step would be unnecessary in the US. It would be cheaper to burn natural gas directly, except for the problems associated with storing natural gas. It is much simpler to stockpile coal.

      • half the coal is converted into CO2
        ======================
        in effect this cuts the CO2 produced by coal fired power plants in half. Instead, half the CO2 is created by the gasification plants, and half by the power plants. Some additional CO2 is of course produced as a result efficiency losses during gasification. But it would cut CO2 production at power plants, by moving it to gasification plants.

  3. When I lived in New Jersey in 1980 Coal to Gas was use during the very high demand very cold days by PSE&G NJ to keep the NG pressure high enough to deliver gas to customers.

  4. If it’s not economical, it won’t survive, what’s the problem? It’s not as if it was renewable and would therefore be expected to receive subsidies forever and a day.

    • I think the scientific american got it wrong (again). The Chinese probably don’t give a rip about CO2 emissions or even overall efficiency because they have lots of coal. They are trying to address a real problem – smog in the cities due to burning coal to heat and cook with. By using coal gasification in an industrial-sized plant they can reduce the air pollution to low levels (CO2 not being pollution of course) and deliver energy to the cities in the form of gas that is clean burning and emits no particulates if it’s burned with adequate oxygen.
      We had almost the same problem in the UK in the 1950s. I have dim memories of the great London smog of 1950 (I think it was 1950). It perhaps wasn’t as bad as what they have in China now because a lot of it was water-based fog trapped in the London Basin, and all those coal fires just kept making it browner and smellier. The government started creating “smokeless zones” where you had to burn “smokeless fuel” – basically coke (from the gasworks) with a few hydrocarbons added back so it would burn easily in an open fire. “Coalite” it was called. By the early 1960s, almost all of London was a smokeless zone, then they phased out steam engines on the railways, and they closed down the in-town power stations. And the air got cleaner. Simple problem and a practical solution. What the Chinese are doing sounds a bit more complex – perhaps they should look at what was done in Britain to alleviate the smog problem.
      I think Paul Ehrlich wrote a piece about the London Smog and said it was what we would all be facing every day by 1985 or some such. The bloody smog was over before he wrote it!

  5. Excuse me but how is converting coal into gas the same as switching from coal to gas? Why not build a coal-powered pumping station to pump water up-hill, use the water to turn turbines and call it hydro-electricity.

    • Coal to gas has a few real benefits:
      1) Gas can be used to generate electricity more efficiently than coal. Combined Cycle gas turbines operate around 60% efficiency. The advanced ultrasupercritical coal plants that are common in China are around 40-45% efficient.
      2) Gas can be used in cities for heating with minimal emissions. Today, a large fraction of urban pollution in China is from coal fired boilers for district heating with no emissions controls.
      3) It produces a fairly pure CO2 stream that can be used for enhanced oil recovery with minimal cleaning. China doesn’t have much easy oil, but it does have oil that is expected to be technically recoverable with CO2 enhanced oil recovery. Or, you could sequester the CO2, provided there was a subsidy in place to pay for it like wind and solar get.
      4) Gas can be used in chemical manufacturing and other industries. Using coal for these processes is very challenging.
      On the balance, coal to gas projects can be very beneficial. Coal is cheap and easy to transport, but only useful for making electricity. Gas is expensive in most of the world, difficult to transport and useful for lots of things. Combining the two sets of values through conversion is beneficial.

      • Gas cannot generate electricity more efficiently than coal unless you believe in the perpetual motion machine. Consider coal to turbine versus coal to gas to turbine. Is the latter really more efficient? Seems unlikely.
        Plus coal is easily stored. When I was in China in 2014 we drove 1,500 km from Beijing to Inner Mongolia and saw a lot of coal-fired generating plants. They looked pretty simple. At one end a railroad track ending in a big pile of coal. In the middle a stack belching out black steam. At the other end a massive power line extending to the horizon.

      • Steve, there are coal plants that take advantage of gasification of coal specifically for the purpose of increasing efficiency. They are called integrated gasification combined cycle power plants (IGCC). They take coal, gasify it, then burn the gas in a combined cycle turbine. They are substantially more expensive than traditional boiler coal plants, but significantly more efficient.
        In places where coal and gas are expensive and nuclear isn’t an option, they may make economic sense. So far, they have been built because they produce a pure stream of CO2 exhaust that can be easily sequestered or sold for enhanced oil recovery. They are one technology pathway to a zero emission coal plant and they have been demonstrated at commercial scale. The Kemper County Project is one example.
        In the US, where coal is $15/ton at the mine and gas is <$1/mmBTU at the well (up to $50/ton and $3/mmBTU delivered to a plant, depending on location), it is difficult to justify the cost of any efficiency improvements. All of the R&D money in this field is being driven by CO2 regulations.

    • “Why not build a coal-powered pumping station to pump water up-hill, …?”
      Probably because there’s no tall hill and reservoir-space nearby. Pumped-water storage is used only in the rare locations that are suitable for it.

      • Roger. I was being sarcastic. Why not leave the coal in a coal pile until you need the energy and then burn it to power a turbine? Why turn it into gas first?

        • Steve from Rockwood

          Gas cannot generate electricity more efficiently than coal unless you believe in the perpetual motion machine. Consider coal to turbine versus coal to gas to turbine. Is the latter really more efficient? Seems unlikely.

          Your premis is incomplete, therefore you can’t intuitively “see” the greater efficiency. You are assuming only a single coal-burning plant, burning coal only as it traditionally has been since Boulton-Watt. You are assuming coal is burned in pressurized combustion air below water-filled tubes, those tubes then transfer heat from the combustion gasses (of the individually very small small coal particles) to the water inside the tubes. After a few seconds, the water turns to steam, then the steam is passed through pipes from the steam collection drum to a turbine (used to be a piston-driven steam engine!) which drives a generator to create electricity. The condensed water from the turbine output is cooled on the outside of the condensor’s water-filled tubes at a vacuum, collected at this very low pressure as a liquid, compressed and returned at high pressure back to the boiler’s tubes to be re-heated.
          This traditional steam turbine-boiler efficiency = energy out/energy in. It is absolutely limited by two things: The hotter the combustion gasses can heat the water, thehigher the pressure that water/steam is held; and the lowest the output energy from the bottom of the turbine in the condenser (the colder the condensate water, and the lower the condensate pressure, the higher the energy difference across the turbine, and the higher the efficiency of the whole plant. )
          So, traditionally, designers try for ever higher and higher steam pressures, and ever higher and higher combustion temperatures (better energy transfer from the coal particles to the burning gasses to the outside of the steam-filled tubes.) But steel and alloys have their limits at about 4500 psig, and the hotter the gasses, the lower the metal strength becomes. Pipes eventually became 10 inches in diameter, but with walls 3 inches thick. Too expensive to build. Superheated steam, pulverized (smaller) coal particles, better turbine designs and better generator designs are just about max’ed out now at overall plant efficiencies of 41-45%.
          (Total Energy out/total potential Energy in)
          But! Gas turbines do NOT burn their fuel that way. They suck in free air (combustion air plus extra cooling air) at zero pressure, compress it (and thereby heat it), push in gasses (now overwhelmingly methane, CH4) as fuel at that new (higher) combustion air pressure, burn the fuel (to get VERY hot exhaust gasses at VERY high pressures), THEN expand that VERY HOT, VERY HIGH pressure gasses through carefully coated turbine blades to turn a rotor.
          That rotor turns a generator directly, and also turns the compressor blades that create the high combustion inlet pressures.
          So, a gas turbine burns a gas fuel to create a very hot gaseous exhaust that turns a rotor that turns a generator shaft. By this process alone we are able to get a single cycle gas turbine energy efficiency of 38-45%. Comparable to coal plants, better than almost all nuclear plants – which cannot readily nor safely nor economically use superheated steam in their turbines.
          Notice that we are “left with” a VERY, VERY hot exhaust gas at low (near zero) air pressure? A single cycle gas turbine just safely vents this hot exhaust gas up into the atmosphere.
          A combined cycle gas turbine plant routes this very hot low-pressure exhaust gas across finned tubes containing water at high pressure. That water boils, is collected, then passed through additional finned tubes to superheat the steam. That steam (now very hot and at high pressure) goes to a separate steam turbine which turns a separate generator, which creates ADDITIONAL electricity from the same plant from the same original fuel … But without burning any more fuel. The secondary cycle electricity is “free” – except for startup and shutdown and repair and maintenance costs.
          So, the overall plant efficiency (energy out/energy in) is up to 65% in new combined cycle designs. Just about twice the electricity as a old single cycle gas turbine.
          BUT!
          Natural gas is not available everywhere, and even where it is available, there may not be distribution networks of the cross country (expensive!) pipelines to get it to the combined cycle power plants. Coal IS available nearly everywhere.
          So, the modern plants are intended to gasify the coal in one of several ways so the newly gasified coal has NO pollutants (sulfur, mercury, soda ash, lead, dirt, rocks or contaminates, and grits) that will destroy the gas turbine blades while still burning quickly and cleanly. That burned, very hot but very clean gas exhausts the gas turbine and passes to the secondary steam cycle finned tubes. It then boils water in the second cycle there, and turns the second steam turbine and the second generator. The most efficient are fluidized bed circulating chambers at very high pressures that continuously recyle the “bed” of coal particles, limestone and reagents that remove the contaminants and vent out the methane and carbon and hydrogen for immediate combustion while the gasses are still hot and at high pressure.
          Yes, you could in theory burn coal directly in a gas turbine. But the fuel is in the burner too little time to heat up the coal particles, the grit and contaminates in the coal will coat out and destroy the turbine blades (and will erode the ceramic turbine blade coatings and plug their internal air cooling networks), and will then cool down and coat out on the finned secondary cycle tubes. After a few weeks, your plant is dead.
          Properly gasify that pulverzied coal, and those problems go away. Now, you’re right, that gasification can be expensive, but if it doubles the efficiency of the coal plant, it is worth it.

      • In case you’re interested, there are pumped storage technologies that can be built pretty much anywhere:
        http://www.gravitypower.net/
        Using off peak coal power to fill your storage is a great way to reduce the need for expensive peaking plants that only get run a few dozen or hundreds of hours per year.
        This technology isn’t commercialized yet, but they’re pathway to commercialization is pretty low risk and they’ll be much more efficient, reliable, and cost effective than batteries.
        When it comes to the energy business, bigger has always been better and likely always will be.

    • Steve: interestingly the early cotton mills in Manchester , eg Arkwrights’s 1781 Shudehill Mill, used exactly that system . A Newcomen steam engine pumped water up and over a water wheel which was the actual motive power for the spinning frames. Later Boulton and Watt perfected direct steam driven systems.

      • Didn’t know that. OK so in 1781 I would have been brilliant. But in 2015 in China it seems silly to convert coal to gas to drive a turbine when coal can be burned directly to drive the turbine. You can’t easily store gas. Transporting coal and storing it is fairly cheap. Seems like the infrastructure to transport gas would be higher than the coal infrastructure which is probably already in place.
        It almost seems like cheating, using coal to make gas, in this CO2 is becoming illegal world.

      • Steve from Rockwood “Didn’t know that. OK so in 1781 I would have been brilliant. ”
        And 100 years before that we would have been burnt at the stake.

  6. PLEASE PLEASE (yes I am shouting) stop showing cooling towers when discussing the life giving trace gas called carbon dioxide.
    End of rant.

    • But cooling towers with their nice flowing lines and friendly clouds coming out are so photogenic.
      Why do you hate clouds?
      In contrast, the chimneys on the left are just little things and do not have anything visible coming out of them at all. Not so photogenic, are they?

    • In their defense, I’m pretty sure that that is an actual picture of one of the plants being discussed.

  7. ‘The NAZIs fought the entire world to a standstill for 5 years’
    18 June 1940 “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”
    10 November 1942 “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
    Bit less than 5 years I think but I get your point.

  8. Maybe they mean aromatics from 4 to 8 carbon atoms not that the 4 carbon aromatics are terribly stable.

  9. We were verbally trashed by the very successful former governor of California at COP21. He lauded his states brilliant economy and visionary use if renewables.
    Will someone explain to Arnie that he can stop the mindless boosterism after he leaves office. Leaves before getting tossed for incompetence that is.

  10. There is a plant in WV. I believe that it is inactive now. There is an active plant in Kentucky that converts 300t of coal per day. The military wants to keep the door open for alternative fuels. South Africa has used the F-T process for years on a fairly large scale.

  11. The South Africans, for decades to get around the sanctions, used coal to produce hydro carbons, such as petrol and diesel, via coal liquefaction process. Whilst the process used by the South Africans is not precisely the same, the technology is broadly similar.
    Coal being used to make coal gas/town gas dates back to the 1800s.
    This is not an immature technology, as others have noted.
    An interesting overview can be found at: http://chemed.chem.purdue.edu/genchem/topicreview/bp/1organic/coal.html

  12. It’s a way for them to use their “stranded coal” assets, since transporting coal long distances is expensive. It apparently uses a lot of water, which can be problematic. It also helps them be more energy-independent, since they currently import a fair amount of LNG. Greenies hate it, because by some estimates it produces twice as much life-giving CO2 as simply burning the coal.

    • “Greenies hate it, because by some estimates it produces twice as much life-giving CO2 as simply burning the coal.”
      McKibben had an article in the National Geographic about the pollution situation in China that pointed this out a year or two ago.

  13. This could help the air in cities like Beijing. The air pollution there is absolutely horrible. This sounds like the primary reason to do this. Economics do not necessarily matter in China.
    Perhaps it will help with the northern hemisphere ice, with less black soot. But it will do nothing to reduce the CO2 emissions, the conversion process gives off CO2, so the net result is similar to burning coal. Is the COP21 author that ignorant? or are they being deceptive?

  14. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that the Fischer-Tropsch process converts syngas to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. The syngas itself is produced by gasification, a process that (by definition) converts any material containing carbon (e.g. coal, petroleum coke, biomass or even waste) into a “synthesis gas”.

    • Johan,
      A few years back, before the unconventional gas revolution, there was a significant effort focused on underground conversion of coal to natural gas using oxidizers. The advantage was that this could be applied to deeper or thinner coal seams that were uneconomic or too dangerous to mine. This same process can easily be applied to already mined coal.
      I don’t think the economics worked, and there are environmental issues, but remember China is a centrally controlled government, and those things are not always a primary concern.

    • Johan – our company is currently converting waste plastic including e-waste (no PVC) to 85% by weight liquid fuel, 10% methane (used to fire the reactor) and 5% carbon black. Rated at a thru put of 2200 lb/hr, 24/7, 330 days of operation. We are also able to convert tyre crumb to liquid fuel of about 40%LF 40%C and 20% NCG. While this produces as much as 2M gallons of fuel one system is only a drop in the bucket. To be economical we really need the price of oil to be closer to 75USD/bbl.

  15. Didn’t they used to call this “town gas”? There is a public park (guess it is still there) in Seattle that was built on the site of a town gas plant, with some of the reaction vessels still in place.

    • And the related “water gas”, and syngas, and producer gas, and a couple of other names. Some with minor variations of the process and product. Most of those make variations in concentration of the product: CO +H2 gas. The FT process makes longer hydrocarbons via adding CH2 units to hydrocarbon chains.
      Cook coal, you get town gas. Add some air, you get producer gas, syngas, etc. Add steam, you get water gas… it’s really a continuum of process of shifting to more hydrogen in the product and how much CO vs CO2.
      And yes, ALL hydrocarbons from CH4 (methane, or natural gas) on up through ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, heptane, octane etc, are all GREAT fuels as are their unsaturated analogs. The notion that the light hydrocarbons are not fuels is daft. Looks to me like someone confused “not usable as Diesel fuel” and just took out the word Diesel.
      Chains from 1 to 4 in length are natural gas and “bottle gas” or LPG.
      From 4 to about 10 are gasoline.
      From about 10 to 14 are kerosene / turbine fuel / winter Diesel (D1)
      From about 12 to 20 ish are Diesel (D2) and heating oil.
      Then you get into heavy bunker fuel oils, lube oils, parafins, waxes, etc…
      Eventually getting to long solid polymers in tar, bitumen, and coal, with less H in it.
      It ALL burns and is fuel. Just different kinds…

      • Stan
        My understanding is that fuels nomenclature is largely traditional. Prior to WWII, refining liquid hydrocarbons was pretty much universally done by distillation of crude oil. Gasoline was the fraction that boiled off in one temperature range, Kerosene the stuff that boiled off in a different (higher) range. After 1940, there was a demand for higher “Octane” fuels that would burn in high compression engines without “knocking” (preignition) so blended fuel mixtures designed to have specific combustion properties became the norm.

  16. Looks like they are trying out a bit of everything, here.
    Energetically, you pay a huge price, ~ 50%, for the conversion. So it is better to do almost anything else. You would use this process if you cannot do anything else, so it gives you a route to fuels you otherwise cannot get. This was the case in wartime Germany and South Africa.
    But for China, it does not seem to make sense. It would be better-faster-cheaper to clean up the coal plants rather than convert them and build a whole new infrastructure to fuel them. After all, clean burning coal plants as in the US and the EU are a well known and mature technology, too.
    So what else?
    If you wanted to build a whole modern chemical process industry from the ground up, this might be a good place to start. If you master coal -> coal gas then -> FT -> liquids + gas, you have learned to do a whole lot of other stuff as well.
    Chemical Engineering student lab done on an industrial scale? It makes a lot of sense for a society which is undergoing a rapid technology modernization. They develop the plants and the infrastructure, and they develop the people who know how to make it all happen.

  17. As for why thinktanks say what they do – always look at the funding source.
    In this case, it would not surprise me to see CAGW, LNG exporters, or similar types of beneficiaries to be the funding sources.
    That’s the beauty of the think tank: in theory they are impartial – in reality, all of them are motivated by their sponsors.

  18. Friends:
    There seems to be confusion between ‘towns gas’ and syngas in this thread. The two are very different.
    ‘Towns gas’ was made by heating coal in sealed container so volatile substances were liberated leaving carbon as coke for use as a smokeless fuel or as carbon for metallurgical use. Substances such as tars were condensed for use and the remaining gas was ‘towns gas’ which was distributed by pipes and used as fuel for lighting and heating.
    ’Syngas’ and ‘syncrude’ are obtained by pyrolysis of coal or other carbonaceous materials. The bulk carbon (C) of the coal is combined with oxygen (O2) and combines the resulting gases with hydrogen (H2) to form hydrocarbons (e.g. CH4). This is possible because carbon burns in a two stage process.
    Carbon (C) combines with oxygen (O2) to form carbon monoxide (CO)
    2C + O2 –> 2CO
    This first stage consumes energy so igniting a fire requires energy (heat) input.
    And carbon monoxide combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2)
    2CO + O2 –> 2CO2
    This second stage releases much more energy than the first stage consumes so the net effect of both stages is an output of heat (which can enable a fire to spread).
    Gasification consists of supplying enough oxygen to convert all the carbon to carbon monoxide and sufficient additional oxygen to convert just enough monoxide to dioxide for provision of the heat to obtain the monoxide. The result is a gas rich in carbon monoxide (CO) contaminated with some carbon dioxide (CO2) and all the volatiles that were in the coal. Burning this gas provides as much heat as burning the coal would have.
    But syngas consists of hydrocarbons (and synthetic crude oil – i.e. syncrude – consists of longer hydrocarbon molecules). This requires hydrogen (H2) and that is obtained using the ‘water gas shift’ reaction. This reacts carbon monoxide with water.
    CO + H2O –> CO2 + H2
    Then catalysts are used to combine the hydrogen and carbon monoxide to form hydrocarbons;
    e.g. 2CO + 4H2 –> 2CH4 + O2
    Again, combustion of carbon monoxide provides any needed energy inputs.
    The Fischer-Tropsch process (FT process) provides both syngas and syncrude. It was perfected in Germany in the 1920s and was used to provide syncrude during WW2 (which is why the RAF bombed the coal providing Ruhr Valley by night and the USAF bombed it by day).
    The FT process was developed to become the Sasol process that Apartheid South Africa used to obtain syncrude from coal because sanctions prevented it from obtaining crude oil.
    This video provides another brief introduction to the FT process.
    So, syncrude and syngas have been available from coal for nearly a century by use of the FT Process. However, until 1994 syncrude was more expensive than crude: it was always more costly to mine, transport and convert coal to syncrude than to drill and transport crude.
    However, since q1994 the Liquid Solvent Extraction (LSE) process has been capable of producing synthetic crude oil (i.e. syncrude) from coal at competitive cost (n.b. cost and not price) with crude oil. We proved the technical and economic abilities of the LSE process with a demonstration plant at Point Of Ayr in North Wales.
    Technical details of the LSE Process are a UK state secret, but the existence of that process constrains the true price of crude oil.
    Richard

      • Depend entirly on the nature of the local feedstocks and economics (cost to build and staff, water costs, etc,). Some shale is easy, some near impossible.

      • Johan:
        You ask me

        Am I correct in assuming that the cost of LSE synthetic crude would still be higher than that of shale oil extraction ?

        The reply of E.M.Smith is pertinent: he says

        Depend entirly on the nature of the local feedstocks and economics (cost to build and staff, water costs, etc,). Some shale is easy, some near impossible.

        As I said in my post you are answering, the Liquid Solvent Extraction (LSE) process has been capable of producing synthetic crude oil (i.e. syncrude) from coal at competitive cost (n.b. cost and not price) with crude oil since 1994. And we proved the technical and economic abilities of the LSE process with a demonstration plant at Point Of Ayr in North Wales.
        Also, as I said, syncrude has been made from coal whenever the supply of crude has been constrained. The Germans did it during WW2 (which is why we bombed the Ruhr valley) and apartheid South Africa used Sasol which was a development of that German process. However, prior to LSE it was always more costly to mine, transport and convert coal to syncrude than to drill and transport crude. LSE has reversed those relative costs.
        The surprising economics of LSE derive from two facts.
        1.
        LSE consumes sulphur-rich bottoms which have disposal cost for oil refineries.
        2.
        LSE can be ‘tuned’ to provide hydrocarbons which reduce need for blending.

        An oil refinery separates the components of crude oil by distilling the crude. The separated components are products which must match market demand; e.g. producing the required amount of benzene must not result in producing too much or too little petroleum. This match of products to market demand is obtained by blending (i.e. mixing) different crude oils for distillation: crudes from different places contain different proportions of hydrocarbons.
        Blending is expensive. It requires a variety of crudes to be transported and stored then mixed in controlled ratios.
        This need for blending is why Brent Crude is so valuable. Saudi crude is the cheapest crude, and blending Saudi and Brent crudes in a ratio of about 2:1 provides a blend that nearly matches market demand for its distillates.
        The LSE process can be ‘tuned’ such that it outputs a syncrude which can provide distillates that match market demand and, thus, removes the need for expensive blending. This is achieved as follows.
        (a)
        An LSE plant dissolves coal in a solvent in an ebulating bed at controlled temperature and pressure.
        (b)
        The resulting solution is converted to hydrocarbons by exposure to hydrogen gas (produced by coal using a water-gas shift also explained in my previous post) in the presence of catalysts and at variable temperature and pressure. Adjusting the temperature and pressure determines the resulting proportions of hydrocarbons.
        (c)
        Changing the temperature and pressure causes the hydrocarbons to come out of solution and the solvent is separated then reused in the process.
        (d)
        The remaining solids (mostly ash minerals) are removed by filtration as a cake.
        Conversion efficiency is greater than 98%. And the not-converted residue can be burned as a fuel.
        The UK’s Coal Research Establishment (CRE) invented, developed and demonstrated the LSE process. CRE was owned by British Coal which was owned by UK government. Ownership of the LSE Process remained with the government when British Coal was closed in 1995.
        The LSE Process is owned by UK Government. Patents on the process were taken out but details of the process are a UK State Secret. Adoption of the LSE Process would collapse the value of Brent Crude, and the sale of Brent Crude is important income for the UK.
        However, the existence of the LSE Process constrains the true price of crude oil. If that price were to rise sufficiently then it would pay the UK to adopt the LSE Process or to license it to other countries for production of syncrude. Hence, the existence of the LSE process has a strategic value as a result of its constraint on the true oil price.
        And the UK may adopt the LSE Process when Brent Crude is exhausted.
        However, frack-gas may remove need to adopt the LSE Process for use although its strategic constraint on oil price will remain.
        I hope that answer is sufficient.
        Richard

  19. Around 1980 I worked for Illinois Power Co as a boiler and turbine operator. The company partnered with Allis-Chalmers using federal and state subsidies to build a coal gasification complex next to the power station and run a 50 megawatt pulverized coal/natural gas fired unit (built in 1950) for research purposes.
    http://www.worldcat.org/title/coal-gasification-the-kilngas-project/oclc/271799819
    http://digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=586901
    The extended phase of this project was to be a gas turbine directly burning the effluent gas. i was told the mid-grade hydrocarbons, liquors and tars were to be marketed to other industries, particularly the photographic film manufacturers.
    I hope that much progress has been made in this technology since then, as the unit promptly ate itself up with the corrosives it created and we were never able to maintain burner stability on the boiler when the natural gas ignitor fires were shut off. Never got a far as rolling off the turbine, much less synchronizing with the grid.
    The gas proved much too wet and dirty to run a combustion turbine, even with ceramic blades. In short, it showed that technology to be inviable, with hopefully valuable lessons learned. It was demolished after 5 years of frustration.
    35 years of progress should have solved some of the metallurgical and purification issues, but I still wish the Chinese a lot of luck.

    • Dawtgtomis:
      The coal conversion technology adopted by Illinois Power Co may have been “inviable” but the FT, Sasol and LSE processes have each been demonstrated to operate at commercial scale with FT and Sasol operating commercially for decades.
      Materials issues are significant: a hot gas rich in carbon monoxide reduces passivating oxide layers from metal surfaces and hydrogen embrittlement can also be a difficulty. These effects can be problems for expansion components and sensor covers but I know those problems are soluble because I personally solved them.
      Richard

      • Thanks richard,
        I had not heard about the Fischer Tropsch synthesis process. I left that industry in 1983 and became a facility operator for Southern Il University. It’s very interesting to learn what’s transpired.

  20. If I am not mistaken, the diesel produced by coal to synthetic fuel has a very long shelf life compared to normal diesel. For a strategic military reserve, it would be ideal.

    • Marcuso8

      Each think tank members wallet tells the think tankers what to ” think “

      And each government-paid “self-called scientist” is paid BY their government to produce results that satisfy their government owners – the ones who pay their next year’s food, clothing and rent, next year’s travel, next year’s research grant, next year’s promotion, next year’s computer and next year’s programmers ….
      If a single $25,000.00 grant from one conservative think tank utterly and forever corrupts one knowledgeable free-thinking scientist, how many already biased – if not completely corrupted already by money, power, and fame – government scientists will $92 billion dollars buy in three years?
      How many government-paid “scientists” and “editors” will 200 billion dollars in 25 years of government grants and government-directed research to bring in 1.3 trillion in carbon taxes?
      How many government-paid “scientists” and government bureaucrats can the banking industry buy for $31 trillion in ENRON-invented carbon futures trading every year?

      • (Note: “Michael Darby” is the latest fake screen name for ‘David Socrates’, ‘Brian G Valentine’, ‘Buster Brown’, ‘Joel D. Jackson’, ‘beckleybud’, ‘Edward Richardson’, ‘H Grouse’, and about twenty others. The same person is also an identity thief who has stolen legitimate commenters’ names. All the time and effort he spent on writing 300 comments under the fake “BusterBrown” name, many of them quite long, are wasted because I am deleting them wholesale. ~mod.)

  21. I remember the big coal gas ‘tank’ in York, where I grew up. It had its circumference ‘floating’ in water, and as the gas volume dropped, the tank settled lower to keep the pressure inside high. When more gas was added, the tank rose higher out of the ground. The Germans had it as one of their targets when they did a run over York, aiming at the railway, the gas works and everything industrial.

  22. “One downside to the process, however, is the output of so-called mid-size hydrocarbons—molecules with 4 to 8 carbon atoms—which can’t be used as fuel.”
    Maybe not equal to liquid diesel or gasoline fuels, but as good as gaseous methane, ethane, butane.

  23. What I take from all this is that coal is a REAL USEFUL commodity. How come we don’t utilise it more? /sarc

  24. As already noted, there are three ways to gasify coal. I don’t think steam + coke (water gas) has been mentioned: H2O + C -> H2 + CO
    The reason for all of these was convenience: a gas range in the kitchen instead of wood or coal; and gas lamps instead of candles and coal oil lamps (no soot). However, blowing out these lamps killed you slowly.

  25. “The main cause is from decreased coal use in China. It’s restructuring its economy …”
    “Climate Scientists, Media Get Science, Data Wrong” December 8, 2015
    http://politicalcalculations.blogspot.com/2015/12/climate-scientists-media-get-science.html
    “In our series of original analyses, what we quickly find is that evidence from international trade data directly contradicts the claims of the study’s authors that the recent decline in the rate at which the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing in the Earth’s atmosphere occurred in an environment of economic growth.
    “Instead, it occurred, as virtually every similar decline in the the rate at which the concentration of global atmospheric CO2 has occurred, as economic activity has likewise declined globally as Earth’s economy has experienced recessionary conditions.
    “That’s not our opinion – that fact is plainly evident in international trade data.
    But that’s not all that’s wrong. The story of a reduction in atmospheric CO2 emissions presented by the climate scientists is already well out of date, as the Chinese government’s actions to stimulate its economy in its efforts to pull the nation out of its recessionary funk early in the first half of 2015 have gained some traction, the effects of which we may directly observe in the trailing year average of the change in global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, where the rate at which CO2 has resumed increasing after having bottomed in June 2015.”

  26. It was the Victorians who started to produce “coal gas” to heat and light London and later the rest of the UK. Coal gas is a mixture of H2 and CO. The gas was a by-product of the coking process that produced coke for steel making.

  27. In the early part of WW2, Germany got its oil from Romania. They were able to get all of Romania’s production in return for weapons and military protection beginning around March 1940. By June 1940 Britain was no longer getting any Romanian oil; the Germans had it all. The logic behind the invasion of the USSR was to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus as only this (and not synthetic supplies which were too expensive) could provide enough fuel to fight the British in the air war. Despite synthetic fuel being so expensive, Germany made vast quantities of it. Wikipedia says that Fischer-Tropsch provided 9% of German war production of fuels and 25% of automobile fuel production. Also see now classic text on German wartime economy, The Wages of Destruction, see index for “oil”.
    As far as the time when Germany was fighting “the entire world to a standstill”, that time certainly could not have started before the moment they attacked the USSR (June 22, 1941), but every month of the war after that, the military of the USSR increased in size. In other words, in terms of reducing the USSR’s military, Germany failed in that from the beginning of the invasion. One could argue that Germany was able to fight the entire world to a standstill for perhaps one month; anything longer fails to take into account the resilience of the countries she was fighting. Germany reached Leningrad in early September 1941 but were unable to capture it. One might say that the “entire world to a standstill” lasted at most 3 months and was not, in fact, supported much by coal to fuel production.

    • Carl Brannen:
      You say of Germany in WW2

      They were able to get all of Romania’s production in return for weapons and military protection beginning around March 1940. By June 1940 Britain was no longer getting any Romanian oil; the Germans had it all. The logic behind the invasion of the USSR was to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus as only this (and not synthetic supplies which were too expensive) could provide enough fuel to fight the British in the air war.

      In WW2, following capture of France, Germany intended to capture Britain (Operation Sealion) before invading Russia. But in 1940 the RAF beat back the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain so Sealion was abandoned and the Germans abandoned intention to invade Britain.
      Oil supplies played no part in that defeat of the Luftwaffe.
      You make a mistaken assertion when you say

      The logic behind the invasion of the USSR was to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus as only this (and not synthetic supplies which were too expensive) could provide enough fuel to fight the British in the air war.

      The Germans were losing aircraft at too great a rate to sustain their attack of Britain and fuel supplies played no part in that. Indeed, as you say

      In the early part of WW2, Germany got its oil from Romania. They were able to get all of Romania’s production in return for weapons and military protection beginning around March 1940. By June 1940 Britain was no longer getting any Romanian oil; the Germans had it all.

      The Battle of Britain was from July to October 1940.
      The existence of Britain as a nearby enemy for Germany had significant effect on the war. Bombing of German productive facilities was conducted from Britain: notably, Ruhr coal mines and syncrude manufacturing plants were constantly attacked. Resources for Russian defence against Germany could be staged through Britain and the ‘Murmansk Run’. Invasion of France (D-Day) was possible from Britain. etc.
      Having lost their attempt to invade Britain, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa to invade the USSR on I June 1941.
      Meanwhile, German efforts against Britain concentrated in North Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. Both were attempts at blockade.
      The Africa War intended to obtain dominance of the Mediterranean and – most importantly – capture of Egypt and the Suez Canal which Britain was using to assist its non-Atlantic import route. The Atlantic War was mostly conducted with U-boats and mines: it continued until German bases in France were captured after the D-Day invasion of France from Britain in 1944. The German campaign in Africa ended when Britain and its Empire forces won the Second Battle of El Alemein in November 1942 and Churchill called that battle “the beginning of the end” {of the war}). Subsequently, in July 1943, the Germans were defeated by the Russians at the battle of Kursk (i.e. the largest tank battle the world has ever known) and from then it was inevitable that Germany would suffer defeat in WW2.
      Blockade of Germany had become important by the time of the Battle of Kursk.
      When ‘Britain stood alone’ the Germans had blockaded Britain. But Germany had become surrounded by the British, Soviet and American allies operating in regions they occupied. Fuel, notably oil, was an essential commodity for conduct of the war effort. And the Germans had become reliant on the Romanian supplies and their syncrude from coal. Russian activity in the East threatened the Romanian supplies.
      Mein Kampf had described the plan for conduct of Operation Barbarossa but the Germans departed from that plan by putting resources into capturing the Caucasian oil fields instead of concentrating on capturing Moscow. This would not have happened if oil supplies were not important to the German war effort. Indeed, struggle for oil supplies is why as you say

      Wikipedia says that Fischer-Tropsch provided 9% of German war production of fuels and 25% of automobile fuel production.

      All of this is interesting but it is only relevant to this thread as illustration of historical importance of syncrude.
      Richard

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