Getting out of petroleum on many fronts

By Nicholas P. Chopey  |

This latest rise in petroleum prices is in the news because of its impact on the consumer, particularly the automobile-driving (or SUV-driving) consumer. Geopolitical tensions triggered by some oil-producer nations have been helping to fuel that price rise, and these tensions bring more urgency to the need — so often stated! — for nations, companies and individual consumers alike to cut back their dependency on petroleum. Chemical engineering technology and process companies are deeply involved in working toward that goal, and it is gratifying to see progress across many fronts.

On the energy-demand side, many process industries, among them pulp and paper, aluminum, cement, and petroleum refining, have inherently been among the biggest industrial consumers of fuels and electricity per unit of product produced. Energy conservation is scarcely a new idea for companies in these fields; and if petroleum prices keep rising and concurrently pull up other energy prices, it’ll simply be a matter of these firms’ engineers reaching yet “higher” for conservation options, having already plucked the low-hanging fruit years ago.

Meanwhile, the rising petroleum prices obviously have been giving fresh, and diverse, impetus to the efforts to turn to other fuel and feedstock sources. One clear, sensible, response is today’s sharply renewed interest in coal gasification (for high-Btu gas or chemical-synthesis feedstock) and liquefaction. In recent years, while the concern about oil and natural gas supply and prices was not acute, the developers and champions of coal conversion kept themselves active not so much by converting coal as by using the same gasification and liquefaction technology to make clean fuel from such dirty wastes as petroleum coke, black liquor from pulp-and-paper mills, and heavy petroleum-refinery residues (Coal Conversion Keeps Itself Relevant, CE, September 1998). But today, we can expect more and more utility and chemical plants alike to gasify or liquefy coal itself. Of the many ventures that are making news, consider these few examples:

•In Germany this spring, energy company RWE (Essen) announced its intention to build what it calls the world’s first large-scale power plant with integrated coal gasification, CO2 separation and CO2 storage. Among the many issues still to be decided are the location, the choice of a gasification process, and the decision between hard coal or lignite

•In Illinois last month, Rentech, Inc. bought a natural-gas-fed ammonia fertilizer plant, which the company will revamp into a multiproduct coal-conversion facility to produce diesel fuel, fertilizer and electricity (see also Gas-to-Liquid Projects Get the Green Light, CE, May 2004, pp. 23–27)

•In China months ago, Dow Chemical and the Shenghua Group signed a letter of intent to jointly evaluate the feasibility of a joint coal-to-olefins project in that country. (Be aware that China’s interest in making chemicals via coal conversion extends far beyond this one agreement.)

Aside from coal, meanwhile, the interest in an increased use of bio-based rather than oil- or natural-gas-based fuels and chemicals continues without letup. For details on various biorefinery projects feeding on corn, wheat straw, and other agricultural residues, see The Path to Biorefineries, CE, April, pp. 27–30. But meanwhile, keep an eye on a growing interest in basing such developments on oilseed crops, such as soybeans, in place of corn.


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