In a groundbreaking move, China has commenced experimental operations at the globe’s most extensive facility dedicated to transforming coal into ethanol. This innovative venture, situated in the southeastern region of the country, was highlighted in a report by state media. Remarkably, this facility boasts the capability to produce 600,000 tonnes of ethanol annually, employing coal as the primary input instead of traditional agricultural crops. This approach is set to alleviate the strain on China’s agricultural resources and curtail its reliance on imported fuel ethanol. Ethanol, recognized as a clean and renewable energy source, parallels petrol in energy density. When ethanol, particularly its anhydrous form with over 99.5% concentration, is mixed with petrol, it significantly enhances fuel combustion and reduces exhaust emissions.
Conventionally, ethanol is derived from crops like corn or sugar cane, but this practice has raised concerns due to its competition with food supply, especially amidst escalating grain prices in China. The alternative of utilizing low-grade coal, a resource plentiful in China, could potentially conserve millions of tonnes of grain annually. According to a statement by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP), this new production method is crucial for ensuring China’s food and energy security and sustaining the chemical industry’s supply chain. The coal-based ethanol plant in Huaibei, Anhui province, is a product of cutting-edge technology, a collaborative development between the DICP and the state-owned Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum Group, as reported by the state news agency Xinhua.
This novel technology, referred to as DMTE, involves producing methanol from coke oven gas, a by-product of coke manufacturing, and subsequently converting it into ethanol through a reaction with other substances. This technique allows for the mass production of ethanol not only from coal but also from natural gas or gases emitted by steel plants, as per the DICP report. China is currently the only nation to implement this technology on an industrial scale. Ethanol’s versatility is evident as it can either transform into ethylene or replace ethylene in certain chemical reactions, making it an invaluable energy product and a fundamental chemical raw material for a plethora of related products.
Globally, ethanol production is predominantly based on agricultural crops like corn, cassava, sugar beet, and sugar cane, with the United States and Brazil as leading producers. The chemical is mainly utilized as fuel ethanol. Despite China’s substantial demand for fuel ethanol, it faces a significant deficit. In the previous year, China produced approximately 2.7 million tonnes of fuel ethanol through the fermentation of aged grain, but the gap in the market, amounting to 10 million tonnes, resulted in heavy reliance on imports.
The coal-to-ethanol team, under the leadership of DICP director Liu Zhongmin, embarked on their eco-friendly DMTE pathway after exploring alternative methods for ethanol production from non-crop sources since 2010. In 2017, this team was instrumental in designing the world’s inaugural 100,000-tonne coal-to-ethanol production line in Shaanxi province. They have refined the reaction process and reduced production expenses by substituting the original expensive catalysts with more affordable non-precious metals.
In a significant development last June, China achieved international standards in coal-to-ethanol production with test runs of a 500,000-tonne facility, equipped solely with domestically manufactured equipment, in Yulin, Shaanxi. This facility now stands as the second-largest of its kind globally, second only to the Huaibei plant. According to the DICP report, “As of now, 13 industrial facilities [including two overseas ones] plan to use DMTE technology, representing an ethanol production capacity of 3.95 million tonnes per year.”