China is poor in oil and gas but relatively rich in coal. At the end of 2010, China’s coal reserves were 114.5 billion tons, accounting for 93.3% of its total energy reserves. Therefore, while oil prices hover high, the development of coal chemical industry to reduce dependence on crude oil imports is becoming a strategic choice of China.
During the "Twelfth Five-Year" period (2011-2015), China will launch major demonstration projects in seven areas, namely, coal liquefaction, coal-to-gas, coal-to-olefins, coal-to-ammonia/urea, coal-to-glycol, low-rank coal upgrading, and coal-to-aromatics. Stimulated by national policies and favorable market conditions, there have been many projects under construction or planning in the new coal chemical industry represented by coal-to-oil, coal-to-olefins, coal-to-glycol, and coal-to-gas in recent years, presenting overheated development at present or perhaps the risk of overcapacity in the future.
The application of coal gasification technology and syngas-to-methanol technology has been mature at present, and the methanol-to-olefins technology has been improved in both theory and experimental equipment after years of development. Shenhua Group has started the commercial operation of its Baotou Coal-to-olefins Project and Shenning Coal-based Olefin Project. As of August 2011, there are 29 coal-to-olefins projects under construction or planning in China, with total olefin capacity of over 20 million tons per year and total investment of over RMB 630 billion.
The coal-to-gas technology is quite mature and promising in China. At present, the cost of coal-made natural gas is about RMB1.0-1.5 per m3 in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, and plus the filling and transmission cost, the price is about RMB2.0-2.5, while the average price in the second-tier cities covered by the West-East natural gas transmission project is RMB3.28. During 2011-2015, China’s coal-to-gas projects will be mainly located in Shanxi, Shaanxi, western Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, eastern Inner Mongolia, Yunnan and Guizhou. The coal-to-gas projects under construction or planning have a total capacity of above 150 billion m3, including the Ordos 2 billion m3 coal-to-gas project of Shenhua Group and the 4+4 billion m3 coal-to-gas project of Datang International Power Generation Co., Ltd.
Coal-to-glycol hasn’t achieved complete industrialization in China. Danhua Chemical Technology Co., Ltd. is the first Chinese enterprise engaged in coal-to-glycol, but fails to solve the catalyst absorption problem, and only maintains an operating rate of about 30%. However, due to high prices of glycol, the profitability of coal-to-glycol will still be good after the technical difficulties are solved. The coal-to-glycol projects under planning have a capacity of over 3 million tons and total investment of over RMB50 billion, including the 5×200,000 tons coal-to-glycol project of Henan Coal Chemical Industry Group and the 800,000 tons coal-to-glycol project of Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum Group.
Coal-to-oil is booming in China. Pre-construction studies, planning, fundraising and construction of large coal-to-oil projects have been carried out in provinces with coal resources. Shenhua Group has leading advantages in direct coal liquefaction, and the first phase of its Inner Mongolia coal-to-oil project has an annual capacity of 1 million tons and an actual operating rate of 80%. At present, there is expected to be nine coal-to-oil projects in China, with annual capacity of 38.2 million tons and total investment of around RMB380 billion.