Cleaner Coal Rises from China’s Central Committee

He Guoqiang. Credit: People’s DailyThis weekend the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee swapped added some new faces to the 9-man Politburo that actually runs what is or will soon be the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases. Among the four new members is a chemical engineer named He Guoqiang. As the New York Times reported, Mr. He is tasked with running the party’s corruption-fighting Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He is less well known as the innovator behind China’s adoption of advanced coal gasification technology to turn coal into chemicals and, increasingly, fuels.

I discovered He Guoqiang while visiting coal mines and chemical plants last fall. One of my stops was at the Lunan Chemical Fertilizer Plant in Shandong Province, about halfway between Shanghai and Beijing, where He got his first job in 1967 and oversaw China’s first application of advanced gasification in the 1980s.

When He arrived Lunan was producing ammonia fertilizer from coal using a gasifier little evolved from the coal-gas plants that lit up Western cities in the 19th C, and almost as dirty, yielding a partially-burned char leftover packed with poisons and a choking sulfurous gas. (More than 8000 such small gasifiers still operate in China, including six at Lunan.) He cut through red tape and restrictions on spending hard-currency (remember that China was still dirt poor 20 years ago) to import China’s first modern gasifiers. These Texaco-designed gasifiers, still running today, break down coal at higher pressures and temperatures that preclude the formation of char and captured the sulfur. 

Lunan’s success set off what has become exponential growth in the use of such advanced gasifiers. There are now over 40 plants using advanced gasifiers from GE (which bought the Texaco technology in 2004) and Shell and more players entering the market, including Siemens, South Africa’s Sasol, and Chinese groups such as East China University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Clean Coal Technology. According to the U.S.-based Gasification Technologies Council, an industry group, China will add 29 large gasifiers between 2004 and 2010.

It was such domestic innovation that brought me to Lunan last October. In what many considered a sign of He’s continued influence, the Yankuang Group that runs Lunan gained Beijing’s support to build a new plant adjacent to Lunan that is China’s first significant coal-fired power project using gasification technology — a development with significant environmental implications. Let’s hope He continues to support R&D to take coal gasification to the next level: capturing CO2 to help slow China’s ballooning greenhouse gas emissions. 

For details on He’s latest good deeds, see “Syn City” — my profile of Yankuang’s combined power and chemicals plant in IEEE Spectrum. For the broader story on China’s increasing adoption of coal gasification see “China’s Coal Future” in MIT Technology Review.

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