Celanese’s new ethanol: Is it Green?

I’ve been thinking about this news on Celanese’s technology in producing industrial ethanol in China using coal and wondering if this really falls under anybody’s ‘green’ category as I saw several green-based websites announcing this plans (e.g. BiofuelDigest, Green Car Congress, GreenTechnolog, etc).

Celanese announced early November that it is building as many as two coal-to-ethanol facilities in China each with a capacity of about 400,000 tons/year as well as a smaller 40,000 ton/year natural gas-to-ethanol plant in Texas, US. Industrial ethanol could be produced either by petroleum-based processing or fermentation processing using corn or sugar.

Celanese expects to begin production in China within 30 months after the project is approved, while the natural gas-based ethanol facility is expected to be completed by the end of 2012. Celanese said it will also explore opportunities to produce fuel ethanol if the regional commercial environment is supportive (e.g. government subsidies will be favorable).

UPDATE: Celanese called and commented that there was no mention whatsoever about government subsidies relating to their plans. The blog will soon interview Celanese for more information about this project.

China’s industrial ethanol demand, according to the company is 3m tons/year with growth rate of between 8-10%/year. Coal is China’s primary energy and chemical feedstock and I’m sure Celanese’s processing will employ the latest in emissions/waste control and other new “clean coal technologies”.

There’s always a big stigma attached to the use of coal much like petroleum (although a bit less since everybody knows we can’t live without petroleum –yet). Natural gas is thought to be a better, more environment-friendly alternative feedstock but now the issue on “fracking” (type of natural gas extraction) especially in the US is spreading fast. The use of vegetable oils as feedstock continues to spark the food versus fuel (and chemical applications) debate as well as other environmental issues related to farming.

It seems biomass, algae and other waste-based feedstock could be the best partial solution for these feedstock problems but they are still years away from being commercially produced and used. By then, I’m sure there will be problems that are going to ‘crop up’ (pun not intended) in using these type of feedstock as well.

[Photo image from Lighthouse Global Investments]

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