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.