Three Chinese factories making olefins from coal are slated to start up this year, part of a serious look that Beijing is taking at using its large coal reserves to reduce its heavy dependence on imported polyolefins.
But before the government lifts some restrictions it imposed in May 2009 and allows more projects making polyethylene and polypropylene from coal, analysts say that government officials will want to see more details on the economic and environmental performance of the factories.
Speaking at a recent industry conference in Beijing, several Chinese petrochemical industry officials urged the government to give coal-to-olefins work high priority, considering that the country imports about half of its PE and one-third of its PP.
The three projects starting this year will provide a boost to China's polyolefin supplies, according to Sun Weishan, the vice general secretary of the Beijing-based China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Association.
The factories, in the coal belt of northern and western China, will have capacity for 3.4 billion pounds of polyolefins, or about 6.9 percent of the country's current polyolefins capacity, he said.
Sun was speaking at the Flexpo 2010 conference, held June 9-11 in Beijing, and sponsored by Houston-based consulting firm Chemical Market Resources Inc. and the Beijing-based China National Chemical Information Center.
We have laid out a plan for coal-to-olefin development, Sun told the conference. If this could be approved by the State Council and the government, it could provide a very good opportunity for development.
Now the Chinese government has set restraints on coal-to-olefin projects, and we can only see the pilot and demonstration projects, he said. What we can do is to wait and see how the policies from the government could be changed.
In an interview after his speech, he said government officials want to observe the economic viability and environmental impact of the projects.
Another speaker at the conference, Fang Wei, vice director of the consulting department of conference sponsor CNCIC, urged the industry and government to consider coal-to-olefins a key national strategy, and step up research to develop catalysts and other related technology.
But he said coal-to-olefins is not a mature technology, and such facilities need significant capital investment.
Also, he wrote in his paper for the conference, coal-to-chemicals factories can have heavy raw material and energy consumption, high water consumption and heavy pollution.
Whether to promote coal-to-olefin projects in large scale will be decided in accordance with the macroeconomic environment, market conditions and cost competitiveness of these projects, after the successful implementation of the industrialization pilot projects, Fang said.
One of the big economic hurdles facing coal-to-olefins is transportation costs, because the factories must be built near coal mines in northwestern China, far from the markets for the resin, said J.N. Swamy, a project manager with Chemical Market Resources.
But the economics are likely to improve with the rail and road building going on in China now, he said.
The three projects starting this year are in Datang, in Inner Mongolia, with capacity for 1 billion pounds of PP; Baotou, also in Inner Mongolia, with 1.3 billion pounds of PE; and in the Ningxia Autonomous Region, with 1.1 billion pounds of PE.
The Datang project already has started, while the other two are scheduled to be put into operation later this year, although it could take more time for them to reach full commercial production.
One Chinese analyst believes the government will ultimately approve more coal-to-olefin projects.
In 10 years, China will likely have eight to 10 such plants, producing about three times the capacity of the first factories starting this year, said Bill Zheng, business development director for Asiachem Consulting (Shanghai) Ltd., which specializes in coal-chemical industry work.
China is the most economical place in the world now to use coal as a plastic feedstock, because it has both the infrastructure and the government desire to use it, said Balaji Singh, president of CMR.
The United States developed similar technology in the 1970s, but it's unlikely to make economic sense there for two decades, Singh said. Plus, there was significant public concern about the environmental impacts, he said.
Beyond the environment, coal mining in China is also dangerous. Chinese state media reported more than 2,600 deaths in coal-mining accidents there in 2009, compared with 18 deaths in the United States.
An executive with a coal company involved in the coal-to-olefins work, the China Shenhua Coal Liquefaction Chemical Co., Ltd., told the conference the technology holds a lot promise for reducing China's dependence on imported polyolefins, but will require more work.
There is a lot of passion and enthusiasm there but we will need to take more actions, said Ren Xiangkun, chairman of the company's coal liquefaction research center.
He said the government released a policy in September that urged that pilot projects be done well, and it has approved two related projects since then: Generally speaking the government is backing this technology and supporting it. It's fair to say that coal-to-olefin is a key project supported by the government.
Shenhua has worked with and licensed technology from Dow Chemical Co. for coal-to-olefins projects in China.
According to Ren, coal-to-olefins can be cost competitive if oil is above $55 a barrel, but the factories are more expensive to build than similar petrochemical projects.
He said companies should be cautious about investments in the sector until the initial projects have been tested, but he said he is optimistic about the long-term potential.
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