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Update on Celanese plans for commercialization of TCX hydrocarbons-to-ethanol process; scale and economics

Celanese Corporation, developer of a hydrocarbons-to-ethanol production process derived from its acetyl technology (earlier post) announced plans in June to enter the industrial ethanol market in China by revamping the market entry strategy to allow the company to enter 6-12 months sooner than originally planned. (Earlier post.)

In a recent interview with Green Car Congress, Mark Oberle Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Celanese, noted that while the industrial ethanol market is a smaller market than fuel ethanol on a global basis, it is very close to what the company does today. “For us, the industrial applications are the worthy first [ones] and primary. As we continue to work and advance the technology, the scale and the economics make a compelling market argument,” he said.

Celanese calculates that it could build a greenfield plant with initial capacity of 400,000 tonnes (just over 130 million gallons) for roughly $300 million. The plant could then scale to 1.1 million tonnes for less than the original investment—i.e., an investment of less than $600 million all-in for a greenfield plant that will produce roughly 350 million gallons of ethanol per year, Oberle said.

If we assume about $5 MBtu for coal in China, we could convert those hydrocarbons to ethanol for somewhere between $1.50 to $1.75 a gallon—the equivalence of producing gasoline from $60 per barrel crude. We’re still in those ranges [from earlier in the year], we continue to advance the technology.

—Mark Oberle

Celanese is one of the world’s largest producers of acetyl products (intermediate chemicals, such as acetic acid, for nearly all major industries); acetyl intermediates account for about 45% of Celanese’s total sales. Celanese uses a methanol carbonylation process (reaction of methanol and carbon monoxide); the reaction utilizes a catalyst and the resulting product (acetic acid) is purified through distillation. Celanese continues to enhance this core technology.

Celanese discovered that ethanol can be made on an industrial scale directly from acetic acid with very high selectivity and yield. More particularly, its invention provides a process for the selective formation of ethanol from acetic acid using a process of hydrogenating acetic acid over a platinum/tin catalyst.

Celanese made breakthroughs in four different areas for the TCX process in building upon its acetyl chemistry:

  • Catalyst systems;
  • Configurations of operations;
  • Materials of construction; and
  • Process controls.

In China, Celanese will modify and enhance an existing facility at its Nanjing plant to produce industrial ethanol, while at the same time working toward a greenfield unit. Celanese also intends to build an approximately 40,000-ton industrial ethanol production unit at its Clear Lake, Texas, facility for either internal use or merchant demand. (Earlier post.) The Clear Lake facility will use natural gas as a feedstock, while Nanjing will use coal.

The primary market for the industrial applications [of ethanol], because of the growth rates, is really in China. We’ll take coal, and using gasification, produce industrial ethanol. Really, half of the market is in China today.

As we look at greenfield opportunities, or talk to potential refiners as customers, there is more scale and more capital and cost efficiency to do it as a standalone. We’ve chosen to modify and enhance the existing Nanjing complex to enter 6-12 months earlier. But we are limited in the modification to how much we can add to an existing facility.

As we talk to refiners, the scale [of our solution] is interesting. The right amount of ethanol at the right price is what has attracted a lot of interest from a refiner. It’s that combination that can provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

—Mark Oberle

Celanese has more than 3,000 global patents on its acetyl technologies; Oberle estimated that the company was close to 1,000 patents in next 12 months on the ethanol technology. As a result, the company intends to protect its IP, and operate the TCX ethanol units as wholly-owned units of Celanese.

Oberle said that Celanese expected to get production in Clear Lake going in 2012, in Nanjing by 2013, and was targeting one and perhaps two greenfield units in China in the mid- to late-2014 timeframe.

Celanese currently plans to run the industrial ethanol business as part of the acetyl business. The customers are the same, and the supply chain is the same, Oberle noted. However, he added, the fuel ethanol market is different; to explore that, Celanese has created a different business unit, and recently named a general manager to help orchestrate and organize that potential new line of business.



When China is running short of coal for electric generation, one wonders where this plant's feedstock will come from.

Possibly Australia... until the Australians put a GW severance tax on coal to tax China's industry indirectly.


Jeez, there go the electrics with unlimited supplies of $60 a barrel oil.

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