26 February 2007
A team or researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre of Material and Process Synthesis (COMPS) is piloting a cheaper, cleaner coal-to-liquid fuel process in China.
The team is looking at designing a plant that has low capital costs and a low-risk design, is inherently stable to operate, and is suited to the skills levels and capital intensity typical of developing countries.
The team, led by Professors David Glasser and Dianne Hildebrandt, has more than 15 years’ experience researching and designing Fischer-Tropsch technology. German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch pioneered the process of producing synthetic fuel from coal and gas in 1920.
With crude oil prices rising, China is seeking alternative sources of energy to fuel its economic growth. According to Glasser, while other countries are looking to natural gas as an alternative, China has little natural gas resources – but abundant supplies of coal.
South African expertise
South Africa’s synthetic fuels industry is highly developed, with petrochemicals firm Sasol being the world’s largest manufacturer of oil from coal, gasifying the coal and then converting it into a range of liquid fuels and petrochemical feed stocks.
“We are looking at how we can use the technology and expertise that we have developed over the years to help [China] produce fuel from coal,” says Glasser.
According COMPS director Brendon Hausberger, the main aim of the project is to make cleaner and cheaper fuel from coal.
The first pilot, costing about R75-million, will be built in China’ Shaanxi province this year with funding from the Golden Nest Technology Group. The centre signed a contract with Golden Nest in 2003 to provide the conceptual foundation for a coal-to-liquids plant with a production capacity of 3-million tons per annum, should the pilot be successful.
In addition, the centre will partner with international teams to design and oversee the development of a 100 000 ton per annum gas-to-liquids demonstration plant in China in 2008.
The aim of this plant, says Hildebrandt, “is to demonstrate that we are able to quickly and effectively build an economical plant that is robust in its control and operation.”
Applications in Africa
According to Glasser, the model of low-capital, low-risk plants more suited to developing countries could have future applications in South Africa, itself a major user of coal-to-liquids technology.
The China project will also offer solutions to reducing carbon dioxide emissions in future plants in SA, while postgraduate students involved in the project will be trained in the development of the new process.
With eight COMPS staff members and 20 research students working on the project, it is the largest project in its field to be undertaken by a university.
“This venture does not come without its challenges,” says Glasser. “Aside from the cultural and language barriers that we face, the climate in the Chinese province where the plant is being built fluctuates tremendously as the seasons change.
“However, once it is proven that this technology works on a large scale, there are endless opportunities for bringing the technology to Africa and the rest of the world.”