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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"!

An Engineer

Jared Diamond is full of it, in my honest opinion. One of his central theories is that Europeans are advanced because they happened to be lucky enough to live in a climate where they could keep cattle. Africans, on the other hand, are poor because there are no domesticated equivalents of cattle in pre-colonized Africa. [That, of course, does not explain Africa's stunning level of poverty since the end of colonization, but I digress.]

Except that Dr. Diamond conveniently overlooked a few inconvenient truths. Such as the fact that the eland, a large antelope of cattle proportions has been domesticated, with some success by farmers in Namibia. Likewise the Cape buffalo, one of Africa's Big Five (due in part to its aggressive nature), has been domesticated in Zimbabwe. The zebra is also easily domesticated - the only complaint is that a zebra is even lazier than a donkey [send it to the White House!].

So Dr. Diamond seem to base his theories on some easily disproven assertions, like many future pessimists tend to do.

An Engineer

TDP/TCP = Thermal Depolymerization recently renamed Thermal Conversion Process see
4PD/H = Four-Phase Dehydration/Hydrogenation see



TDP/TCP is Thermal Depolymerization/Thermal Conversion Process from Changing World Technologies. Not sure about the other one.


I've been watching the biodiesel industry grow explosively, with one article implying that our capacity is now about 864 million gallons, which is a more than 10-fold increase from 2004, when we produced 75 million. Biodiesel is far better than corn ethanol as far as energy return is concerned.

I've got my fingers crossed on algae-based biofuels. But that is not the only technology out there. Even the F-T process described in this article could be adapted for BTL fuels.

Once the technology is there, we can expand it at an explosive pace. And CO2 emissions will drop like a rock.


Marcus seems to have stirred up a hornet's nest. I'm not a doomer but I don't dismiss the warnings of people like Jared Diamond either. Australia is one of only about 14 countries that is a regular, large exporter of agricultural products. We have fragile soil, a highly variable climate and big problems with salinity caused by irrigation. We are almost uniquely vulnerable to climate change. I haven't heard of any towns being abandoned because of the current drought but all the major cities are on water restrictions. The public are getting much more concerned about theses issues. I wouldn't write John Howard off just yet though. I wish that I could, but he is the ultimate survivor.
What I'm saying is that if we proceed further in our current direction we are in dire trouble. We still have the ability to change but time is running short. The engineer's post is interesting and there are countless other examples of societies that have been galvanised into action in time of crisis. We need the US to declare war on climate change, maybe then we would see some of the countless billions spent in Iraq used more productively. Congress was asked for a meager $26 million a few months ago to support work on climate change and they knocked it back.

An Engineer

Critta & Marcus,
Here's what Australia needs to do:
Take sewage, clean it up, put it back into the taps. Period.

Shock! Horror! NIMBY! Except for two realities:
1. To some degree it already happens: Let's take a big US city, say Las Vegas. Ever wondered what happens to sewage in Vegas, babe? It gets treated and returned to Lake Mead, which is also the source of Vegas' drinking water. And much of Southern California, once the water (effluent?) has made its way down the Colorado river and got pumped accross the width of California.
2. More to the point, the city (town by US standards) of Windhoek, Namibia has been augmenting its drinking water supplies with treated sewage for ~40 years. And no health problems either.

So Matilda, pinch your nose if you have to, and lead the way (waltz). Others are sure to follow...


Article in the March issue of Popular Science: "The Prophet of Garbage", about Joseph Longo's plasma converter that can create syngas. Eliminates the need for landfills, can eat just about anything, including biomass, and produces more electricity than it uses. We can use F-T for the syngas to create diesel, gasoline, or natural gas.

An Engineer

Biodiesel is potentially somewhat promising, but I think there are better technologies around. My concern is that the search for alternative fuels have gotten off to a bad start and things seem to be getting more confusing. Here are two of my guiding principles:
1. We need a different fuel SOURCE, not just a different CARRIER fuel. What good is hydrogen, if you make it out of natural gas? What good is ethanol, if for every 80,000 BTU of it you required 36,000 BTU of natural gas (as Scientific American recently reported)? Why invest in a fuel that needs new production facilities, new transportation infrastructure, new filling stations and new vehicles? There must be a better way (and there is IMHO).
2. Whatever the fuel SOURCE that ends up replacing oil, it won't be FOOD! At a small scale US agricultural subsidies support this lunatic notion. In energy terms the 4 billion gal of ethanol produced in 2005 was enough to replace just under 1% of US oil consumption. In 2006, increased demand for corn (from all those new ethanol plants) has already increased the price of corn by 50%. In 2007, things are set to get worse: corn prices going through the roof (affecting a host of food prices), ultimately pricing ethanol out of the fuel market, even after those generous subsidies. There must be a better fuel SOURCE, and there is: WASTE. Free (actually you can paid for taking much of it), plentiful and renewable.

Using these two criteria one can evaluate a host of alternative fuel technologies: Corn ethanol fail both criteria, converting food into a fuel that requires special handling. Cellulosic ethanol fail criterium #1, while passing #2. Biodiesel made from edible oil specialy harvested for the purpose fail both criteria, while biodiesel made from waste grease, only fail the first criterium.

The truly promising technologies are those that meet both criteria: those that convert waste into liquid hydrocarbons that can be blended into the existing fuel supply with no special requirements. Technologies that can do that include:
1. Gasification/Fischer-Tropsch
3. 4PD/H

Only when we have achieved close to full utilization of waste, will it be necessary to consider energy crops. Here the main aim would be YIELD. There can only be one winner: algae. On the scale that is needed I believe we are talking of an ocean based system. But that is pretty far into the future: there is a lot of waste that is waiting to be converted into fuel!

This is win-win-win: the environment wins (twice) in that landfill waste is reduced and CO2 levels stabilized. The local economy wins in that new jobs are created to produce some local fuel. Security-wise you get to reduce oil imports, sending less money to the crazies. And no wasteful replacement of fuel storage and transportation infrastructure. No need to replace the existing vehicle fleet.


An Engineer, your one sentence dismissal the Pulitzer prize winning book "Guns Germs and Steel" by the UCLA Prof. unfortunately betrays quite a shallow understanding of the issues and a heavy bias. What is your bias? What are your explanations for some of the issues raised in the book?


An Engineer notes the availability of waste, but conspicuously fails to quantify

  1. How much of it there is, and
  2. How much demand it can satisfy.

These are crucial questions.  If he has answers to them, I'd like to see his proposal for tackling the combined problems of shrinking energy returns from fossil fuels and GHG emissions.  If he has anything I haven't taken into account yet, I'd sure like to know about it.


An Engineer notes the availability of waste, but conspicuously fails to quantify

  1. How much of it there is, and
  2. How much demand it can satisfy.

These are crucial questions.  If he has answers to them, I'd like to see his proposal for tackling the combined problems of shrinking energy returns from fossil fuels and GHG emissions.  If he has anything I haven't taken into account yet, I'd sure like to know about it.

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