Tuesday, January 26, 2010
So, in today's adventure in much-harder-to-find-than-they-should-be energy statistics, I try to assemble some kind of series for global production of synfuel from coal-to-liquids (CTL). This went even worse than the tar sands. However, I think I have figured out the big picture, and I report my findings here for the benefit of future energy sleuths, or in the hope that someone will point me at better data if it exists.
Firstly, for the sake of readers just getting up to speed, what we are talking about is the possibility to use various kinds of chemical transformations to make a petroleum-like liquid fuel from coal. See the Wiki entry on coal liquefaction for more details of the various possibilities. This was done most famously by the Germans during World War II, and has been done for a long time in South Africa; the South Africans needed to get around economic sanctions during the Apartheid era, and that country has a lot of coal and not much oil. Since there are huge amounts of coal underground around the world, CTL is often cited as a potential substitute for oil in future (generally by folks not worried about climate change).
There are at present two plants in the world operating coal liquefaction processes at commercial scale. The first is operated by Sasol in South Africa and has been operating for a long time. The second has just been opened last year by Shenhua in China.
Let's start with South Africa. In the graph above (repeated below), the first data to look at is the red line for 2006 to 2009. This represents actual production of synfuel according to Sasol's annual reports. The only conversion I had to make was from the millions of tonnes/year in the report to millions of barrels/day. I assumed a specific gravity of the syncrude of 0.86 (specific gravity is basically the ratio of the density of something to the density of water). This is in line with estimates of the density of crude oil. It might be off by a few percent either way, but won't be grossly wrong. The red line is on the left hand scale in millions of barrels/day. You can see that compared to global liquid fuel production of 86 million barrels/day or so, this is small beer.
Unfortunately, Sasol only makes their last three annual reports available online, which between them give us four years of production data. To get earlier data, I spent a long time poking around the website of the South African Department of Minerals and Energy. I was not able to find a good annual series for coal to liquids production, but I found two useful sets of numbers that constrain the situation. Firstly, in this 2006 digest of energy statistics, on p30, there is a set of numbers of refinery capacity which includes the crude equivalent capacity of Sasol's synfuel refinery (how much crude it would have consumed to make it's end products if it were starting with crude instead of coal). This will not be more than 5-10% different than the output capacity of the plant (though actual production could have been somewhat less depending on load factor). That data is the blue points in the graph below. As you can see, they are at a generally similar level to the Sasol annual report data for actual production in recent years.
Next up, from p28 of the same document, there is a series of the amount of coal used in "Synthetic", which I take to be use for the input for synthetic fuel at Sasol. That data is shown as the green curve (which is on the right scale). I was not able to find a time series for conversion efficiencies of coal to liquid fuel, so I have to leave this in coal terms.
Overall, the picture seems to be that South African production of CTL synfuel has been roughly flat for many years. There are some fluctuations, but there is certainly not an overall upward trend.
The data situation for the new plant in China is even sketchier. According to this page, the capacity of the plant is 1 million tonnes per year, which is about 1/7 of the output of Sasol in South Africa. It reached full production some time in mid 2009, so there would not have been a full year of production in 2009. Thus, at this time this represents a rather small increase in total global production of coal to liquids - perhaps of the order of 5-10%, with a little more coming in 2010 with, I assume, a full year of operation. Shenhua does have plans to increase the plant capacity to 3Mt in the future, which would give another increase when that occurs.
Amusingly, the CTL plant is located in a place we have already referenced on this blog: Ordos.
Posted by Stuart Staniford at 8:04 AM