China Coal Right Element For Chemical Firms
For years China has been a magnet for the chemicals industry, attracting European and American companies with its cheap production costs and growing market.
Now China has another attraction for the energy-intense chemical industry: vast supplies of coal that can replace oil and natural gas as raw materials for chemical production.
In the last two years, China has built nearly 20 plants that convert coal into a gas that can be used to make such things as plastic and pharmaceuticals, according to the Gasification Technologies Council, an industry trade group. The new plants draw on technology developed by companies such as General Electric Co. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
Now, Western chemical firms are getting in on the action. Celanese Corp. opened a plant this year that uses coal-based feedstock to make a chemical used in paints and food sweeteners. Dow Chemical Co. has partnered with Chinese energy company Shenhua Group Corp. to study a project to convert coal into plastics. Mining company Anglo American PLC is also looking at a coal-to-chemicals project. Suppliers to the chemical industry, such as Praxair Inc., are vying to open accounts with the new coal-to-chemical plants.
'Coal to chemicals is an opportunity that's literally exploding [in China] right now,' says Timothy Vail, chief executive and president of Synthesis Energy Systems Inc., a company that builds coal-gasification plants.
Launching their own coal-to-chemicals projects in China represents one way Western companies are fighting to keep their competitive edge. In the past decade, chemicals makers based in Europe and North America have lost market share to their counterparts in Asia, where demand for chemicals is rapidly growing.
China's government, meanwhile, has orchestrated the buildup of the coal-to-chemicals industry in an effort to reduce the nation's growing dependence on imported natural gas. Using China's vast coal deposits to make chemicals and plastics provides a more reliable source of raw materials that can feed the expansion of China's main economic growth engine, its manufacturing sector. The new plants also replace older, soot-belching chemical factories that have earned the government a bad reputation for the pollution they create in Chinese cities.
Gasification technology, which uses high temperatures and pressure to break the molecular bonds in coal to produce gases that can be recombined into a variety of fuels and chemicals, has existed for more than a century. Germany gasified coal to fuel its planes during World War II. China has made fertilizers through gasification for decades. But there had been little incentive for the global chemical industry to gasify coal until prices began soaring for natural gas and oil.
North America has its own huge reserves of coal, sparking interest in gasification plants in that continent as well. But development has been slowed by concerns that the projects would contribute to growing emissions of the gases that cause global warming. Among fossil fuels, coal emits an especially large amount of carbon dioxide when being burned, and man-made carbon dioxide is one of the most prevalent gases that human activities are contributing to earth's rising temperatures. Gasifying coal to produce chemicals emits less carbon dioxide than does burning coal as fuel, but the process still ejects more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than using natural gas would produce, says Eric Larson, a research engineer at the Princeton Environmental Institute.
The U.S. government doesn't yet limit nationwide the amount of global-warming emissions industry can release into the air. But the future prospect of such rules, along with coal's dirty reputation, has kept coal gasification from catching on in the U.S. on the same scale as it has in China, analysts say. 'There is a stigma about coal because of its historical environmental and safety concerns,' says Edward Glatzer, director of technology at Nexant Inc., a San Francisco-based consulting firm.
Some of the Western companies planning to jump into the sector in China, including Dow Chemical, are considering ways to offset or store the global-warming emissions their projects will generate. One possibility -- a process that would inject carbon dioxide deep underground for storage -- is a largely untested technology that is likely to be very expensive. In the meantime, gasification projects are getting speedily green-lighted in China without concern over emissions.
China is poised to surpass the U.S. as the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Studies show that about one-fourth of China's global-warming emissions are released in the process of making the tennis shoes, toys, computers, shirts and other products that the country exports abroad.
While the Chinese government agrees on the need to reduce carbon emissions, it prefers to achieve that through increased energy efficiency and by using more alternative energy. It has no plans to cap carbon emissions because it believes such a move would limit economic growth.
Government officials have smoothed the way for gasification projects by fast-tracking permits and helping companies to secure capital, industry executives say. 'In anywhere between 24 to 32 months they have [plants] built and operating,' says John Lavelle, general manager of GE Energy's gasification business. 'It's pretty remarkable.'
Cheap labor and minimal regulations mean coal-gasification plants in China can be built for about two-thirds to one-half the cost of a project in the U.S. or Europe. Coal-to-chemical plants built in the last two years have expanded Chinese capacity by 1,575 cubic feet of gas a day that can be used as chemical feedstocks, according to the Coal Gasification Council. The plants slated for construction in the next four years will double that capacity.
Western companies involved in China's coal-to-chemical industry argue that coal gasification has the potential to be environmentally friendly. Because the gasification process separates out carbon dioxide, the global-warming gas can be more easily captured and stored once an affordable technology is developed. Dow, for example, says it is studying ways to sequester carbon dioxide -- or to offset its environmental impact by reducing emissions elsewhere through projects such as planting carbon-dioxide-consuming trees.
Celanese says it is committed to controlling greenhouse-gas emissions in all its operations, reducing them by 30% from 2005 to 2010. 'Reducing emissions means you are more efficient,' says David Weidman, the company's CEO and also a member of the board for environmental group the Conservation Fund.
Chinese companies aren't sweating the issue, say analysts at the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Association. Only China's two biggest oil and chemical firms, the state-owned giant China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., known as Sinopec, and China National Petroleum Corp., parent of the listed PetroChina, are studying how to store carbon emissions.
据行业贸易组织煤气化技术委员会(Gasification Technologies Council)提供的数据显示，在过去两年里，中国建成了近20个煤炭气化厂，其产品可被用于生产塑料和药物等多种产品。这些新建工厂采用了通用电气公司(General Electric Co.)和荷兰皇家壳牌有限公司(Royal Dutch Shell Plc)等企业开发出来的技术。
现在，西方化工企业也纷纷开始在中国建设煤化工厂。今年Celanese Corp.旗下的一个工厂建成投产，该厂以煤炭为原料生产用于涂料和食品甜味剂的化工产品。陶氏化学公司(Dow Chemical Co.)与中国能源企业神华集团有限责任公司(Shen Hua Group Corp.)合作开展了“煤变塑料”研究。矿业公司英美资源集团(Anglo American PLC)也考虑在华上马煤化工项目。而普莱克斯(Praxair Inc.)等化学工业的供应商则在竞相与这些新建煤化工厂开展业务往来。
Synthesis Energy Systems Inc.是一家建造煤炭气化厂的公司，其首席执行长兼总裁蒂莫西•维尔(Timothy Vail)说，煤化工业在中国大有可为。
北美拥有丰富的煤炭储量，这也促进了当地煤炭气化厂的兴建。但是人们担心煤炭气化项目会增加温室气体的排放量，这些项目的推进因此遇到了阻力。在所有的石化燃料中，煤炭燃烧时产生的二氧化碳量尤其大，而人为产生的二氧化碳是人类活动导致全球变暖的罪魁祸首之一。普林斯顿环境研究院(Princeton Environmental Institute)的研究工程师埃里克•拉森(Eric Larson)说，采用煤炭气化技术生产化工产品比直接燃烧煤炭所产生的二氧化碳要少，但仍比燃烧天然气产生的二氧化碳要多。
美国政府还没有对全国工业企业的温室气体排放总量进行限制。但分析人士说，未来出台此类限制的前景以及煤炭污染的恶名阻碍了煤炭气化在美国的发展，使其发展规模不及中国。美国咨询公司Nexant Inc.的技术主管爱德华•格拉泽(Edward Glatzer)说，因为人们在环境和安全方面一直对煤炭心怀疑虑，所以煤炭的名声不怎么好。
业界管理人士说，政府官员们已经为在中国上马煤炭气化项目扫清了道路，他们会为这类项目的审批开通快车道，并帮助企业落实项目所需资金。通用电气能源集团(GE Energy)的煤炭气化业务总经理约翰•拉韦勒(John Lavelle)说，一座煤炭气化工厂在中国只要24至32个月便能建成投产。
中国廉价的劳动力和宽松的法规意味着，这里煤炭气化工厂的建设成本只有欧美地区的三分之二到一半。据煤气化委员会(Coal Gasification Council)的数据显示，过去两年中建成的煤化工工厂将中国的煤炭日气化量提高了4,500万立方米。未来四年计划修建的工厂还将使这一产量增加一倍。
Celanese表示该公司致力于在所有的业务领域中控制温室气体的排放，计划从2005年到2010年将排放量减少30%。该公司首席执行长大卫•魏德曼(David Weidman)同时也是环保组织自然保育基金(Conservation Fund)的董事会成员，他表示减排意味着效率的提高。
中国石油和化学工业协会(China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Association)的分析师说，中国公司还没有在这方面做太多的工作。目前只有中国最大的两家石油化工企业中国石油化工股份有限公司(China Petroleum & Chemical Corp.)和中国石油天然气集团公司(China National Petroleum Corporation)在研究如何储存生产过程中排放的二氧化碳。