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South African Researchers Planning Coal-to-Liquids Plant in China

Researchers from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Centre of Material and Process Synthesis (COMPS) are planning to build a pilot coal-to-liquids (CTL) project in the Shaanxi province in China. The R75-million (US$10.5-million) pilot project is expected to be 30% more efficient than the current technology and will consist of seven reactors.

The project is being funded by the Golden Nest Technology Group, which contracted in 2003 for the development of the conceptual foundation of a coal-to-liquids (CTL) plant with a production capacity of 3 million tonnes a year. If the pilot project is successful, the first commercial plant will be built.

The main aim of this multidisciplinary project is to make cleaner, faster and cheaper fuel from coal. This project is unique in that it is the largest project of this caliber undertaken by a university in this field. With eight COMPS staff members and twenty research students working on the project, it provides excellent training for the team to work on developing a life-size plant from scratch, with minimal fundamental information.

—Brendon Hausberger, a Director of COMPS

COMPS will partner with international teams to design and oversee the development of the 100,000 tonnes per year demonstration plant in China in the next year. The team is looking at an optimized design of a plant that has low capital costs such that a group of smaller investors could raise the capital; has a low risk design, is inherently stable to operate and start up and is suited for the environment in a developing economy, in terms of operator skills and capital intensity.

The concepts that will be explored in this project with a view to implementation in subsequent plants, could help to reduce the CO2 emissions in coal-based economies, according to Professor David Glase, one of the project leaders. He says that this will be vital in terms of increased economic efficiency as well as in the future if limitations and taxes are put on CO2 emissions internationally.

The COMPS technology could reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 6.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per ton of fuel produced, from the current level of 7.5 tonnes, according to one report. One metric ton of diesel fuel is equivalent to about 300 gallons US. The COMPS research team is also looking at combining gas-to-liquids (GTL) and coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology, which would potentially cut emissions further.

China currently has about 27 coal-based chemicals and fuels projects in construction, planning and or feasibility stages.



Coal produces about 1.7 more co2 per unit of energy than natural gas. On a coal equivalent basis, therefore, natural gas emits an equivalent of 4.4 tons of co2 per ton. So even if this project is successful, a big if, the co2 output from a ton of coal will be 47% greater than the energy equivalent amount of natural gas.

Coal produces about 1.25 more co2 per unit of energy as oil. Therefore the coal equivalent value for oil is 5.2 tons. Therefore, the co2 output from a ton of coal will be 25% greater than the energy equivalent of oil, assuming a successful project.

Even with our current energy mix, we are in the process of accumulating an unprecedented amount of co2 in the atmosphere, gases that will take a hundred years to disappear. All forms of coal, unless sequestered in some way are, a diaster for the planet. Oil and natural gas are a disaster, as well, but at least their availability appears to be peaking within a relatively short time frame. Oil may have aleready peaked.

There is no green liquid fuel; there are only shades of black and brown.

This site purports to be devoted to sustainable mobility. These kinds of "breakthroughs" are good examples of unsustainable mobility.


What did you expect? China and the us and a few other polaces have vast coal resources they will tap. If we are very lucky the us will at least use the coal to make various fuels then use the co2 ro make even more fuel or sequester it. Itds highly dountful all that many others will.

Harvey D.

The average USA/Canada personnal vehicle uses about 2 tonnes of fuel a year and produces about 8 tonnes of CO2 per vehicle per year. Total = about 250 million x 2 tonnes = 500 million tonnes of fuel per year producing 8 x 250 million = 2 000 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

Asumming that all this fuel was produced with Coal to Liquid fuel plants, the CO2 produce at the conversion plants would be about 7.5 x 500 million tonnes = 3 750 million tonnes per year.

Producing + burning this fuel in our ICE vehicles would produce about 2 000 + 3 750 = 5 750 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

Would this be acceptable?

If the rest of the world switches to fuel from coal, the total CO2 produced per year would be about 4X the above..


The good news there, Harvey, is that we'd literally burn through our "vast" coal reserves pretty quickly. The atmosphere would be knackered and there'd be a lot fewer humans to continue screwing it up.


So they create these and then slowly convert them to biomass-to-liquids. At least they help avert worldwide fuel security issues in the meantime.

An Engineer

There is no green liquid fuel; there are only shades of black and brown.
What? You mean we are all going to DIE? Oh no!

Tell you what, t, print out your slogan and stick it above your bed on the cave wall. Then sit back and watch the world provide you wrong.

I know, from a US perspective things can look pretty grim, especially if you look at Washington expecting to see leadership. "Hey-hey, let's convert some food->fuel, make the farmers rich and make absolutely no difference in our oil imports! At huge cost to the tax payer!" LOL

But look a little closer and there are some real GREEN liquid fuel technologies, much of it flying under the radar, much of it in the early stages of development. Technologies such as TDP/TCP, Choren, 4PD/H, etc.

Humans are pretty adaptable, especially when facing a crisis. Get some popcorn, and watch this principle at work...


Eng: I'm not familiar with the "under the radar" TLA techs you just listed, do you have any links or info?


If and when we run low on oil, the world will just switch over to coal based fuels. Bio-fuels are just talk until they get their volume up? Umm, about all those Co2 reductions everyone wants; let’s just see what the Politicians actually due in this area. When the high cost of clean energy hits Joe Six-pack in the wallet, does the government hold the line or will it buckle under? Europe appears to be having a tough time meeting its GHG targets right now!! High gas prices at the pump will cause more people to switch over to higher MPG cars and this is why Detroit isn’t selling as many SUVs.


Otto, there are currently more biofuels than coal-to-liquids in use worldwide. With the significant risk involved with continued carbon emissions, I wouldn't count out a carbon tax. If so, coal will get much cleaner than this project invisions or it won't be part of the answer.


It's not so simple as just switching fuels when the oil runs out OttoV. There is the matter of energy return on energy invested. The easiest oil just comes up out of the ground under pressure and we refine it. Coal to liquids works but requires much more energy to produce and would be next to impossible to produce in the sorts of volumes we require for our energy intensive economies, never mind the nightmarish climate consequences. If we had to switch over completely, fuel prices would skyrocket.
EV's are a much better alternative, at least for personal mobility, and have the potential to be a disruptive technology in coming years.I can't wait.


An Engineer, I don't think this is going to be much of a story to eat popcorn to. Our past is littered with extinct civilizations and cultures, many times due to lack of adaptability - just read Jared Diamonds "Collapse". The last time the temperature was as hot as its predicted to be in the next couple of 100 years or so, it was the age of the dinosaurs with aligators living as far north as Greenland. I suspect any adaptions we will make will be accompianied by a lot of people failing to adapt and dying, and at a cost that dwarfs any cost of mitigation, as Stern pionts out. Some people may also dismiss the damage to the rest of earths species but this to me is also an epic tragedy and one that can't help but also impact our plight.

In fact from a US perspective it all looks quite ok so far compared to other regions and this may be one of the reasons for the delay in action we have seen. Just compare to Australia where entire towns are being abandoned through lack of water and farm land is turning to desert. I think its a good bet that Prime Minister Howard's lack of action on this issue will finally force him out of office later this year. The worst hit of course will be the poor who are in marginal land already. If you think drought has already been bad in Africa you ain't seen nothing yet. Anyone for popcorn?



I think your view promotes a very pessimistic attitude that makes it harder to find the solutions we seek. If your message is consistently "We're all doomed!" then you'll find that despair becomes more common than hope, and panic overrides reason.

Pessimists stop looking for solutions sooner than optimists. I highly suggest that you change your message from "We're DOOMED!" to "We can beat this!" That is the message that Engineer is trying to communicate, I think.

An Engineer

Thanks for the kind words! UR spot-on! Attitude makes all the difference.

Incidently, if you want to see a story about how people overcome impossible odds, read up on the chemical industry during WW2. Some US stats:
1. Over the course of the war, magnesium use exploded from near zero to 2,000 ton/y, then to 125,000 ton/y.
2. In 1939 the U.S. aviation gasoline capacity was about 17,000 bbl/d. Early in 1941 forecasts were at 35,000 bbl/d, but after Pearl Harbor, these jumped to 190,000 bbl/d. A year later they grew again to 300,000 bbl/d. Finally, in 1945, AGN capacity peaked out at over 600,000 bbl/d. A 35-fold increase in only six years.
3. The overall Rubber Program built 51 plants for feed-stocks, monomers, and synthetic rubber. The SBR production grew from 3,500 ton/y in 1942 to 790,000 ton/y in 1945, a 225-fold increase in three years. In 1944 the Chemical Engineering Award was given to 67 companies for "crowding into 24 months, chemical engineering planning and construction that normally would have required many years."

BTW, the Germans did some pretty amazing things too, bringing CTL technology to full scale application.


Engineer: What are TDP/TCP and 4PD/H?


I don't feel completely hopeless otherwise I wouldn't be reading this blog. I think the attitude that its not going to be THAT bad is also a negative for getting things done. In fact I would argue complacency is much more of a block to finding solutions than my attitude, which is not "we're doomed", more like "don't kid yourselves that its going to be pretty - we had better get MOVING on this NOW"!

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