China Increasing Coal Use to Produce Ethanol

State-run media in China reported that a facility there has begun testing production of ethanol through the use of coal, rather than using crops such as corn or sugar cane to make the fuel. The plant in southeastern China, with an annual production capacity of 600,000 metric tons, is said to be the world’s largest ethanol-producing plant.

Chinese officials said the goal is to use the country’s abundant coal resources, rather than vital food sources, to make ethanol while also reducing China’s need to import the fuel.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP), in a report on its website, wrote, “The new production route is vital for China’s food security, energy security and the chemical industry supply chain.”

The U.S. Dept. of Energy describes ethanol as a “renewable fuel” made from biomass, typically from corn grain. Ethanol is mixed with gasoline to oxygenate the fuel.

For more insight into China’s continued commitment to coal and coal-fired power generation, read “China Will Guarantee Financial Support for Coal-Fired Power Plants,” along with “China Approves 106 GW of New Coal-Fired Capacity,” two previous articles from POWER.

Xinhua, a China state news agency, on Dec. 30 said the coal-based production there is taking place at a plant in Huaibei, in Anhui province. The facility is using technology jointly developed by the DICP in partnership with the state-owned Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum Group, according to Xinhua.

China is using low-grade coal in the ethanol production process; officials said the use of coal to make ethanol will save “millions of tonnes” of grain annually that can instead be used as a food resource.

Xinhua reported that a new technology known as DMTE produces methanol from coke oven gas, which is a by-product of coke production, an industrial practice using coal. The methanol reacts with other materials to produce ethanol. The DICP in a report wrote that the process supports large-scale ethanol production, both from coal and also from natural gas, which is used in many of China’s steel production facilities. Officials said China is the only country known to have deployed the technology using fossil fuels on an industrial level.

The U.S. and Brazil are the world’s leading producers of ethanol, accounting for about 90% of global ethanol output.

A Dec. 30 report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) said China in the past year “produced about 2.7 million tonnes of fuel ethanol through fermentation of aged grain,” but had a shortfall of about 10 million tonnes, meaning the country is reliant on imports of the fuel.

China, the world’s leading coal producer and responsible for about half of global production, also is the world’s leading consumer of coal, with about 55% of global consumption in 2022, according to Statista, a data research service. Government data shows China has decommissioned more than 70 GW of coal-fired power generation in the past decade, but the country also continues to build new coal-fired facilities. Global Energy Monitor, a U.S.-based think tank, recently said more than 95% of the global coal-fired power generation capacity that began construction in 2023 was in China.

The SCMP reported that China’s coal-to-ethanol team is led by DICP director Liu Zhongmin. The newspaper said the DICP developed the DMTE technology “after researching non-crop ethanol production methods since 2010.” The agency said the group in 2017 designed a coal-to-ethanol production line in Shaanxi province, which it has continually upgraded.

The DICP report said, “As of now, 13 industrial facilities [including two overseas ones] plan to use DMTE technology, constituting an ethanol production capacity of 3.95 million tonnes per year.”

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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