A visitor arriving in Shanghai immediately notices China’s technological conundrum. Through the windows of the magnetically levitated train that covers the 30 kilometers from Pudong International Airport to Shanghai at up to 430 kilometers per hour, both the progress the country is making and the price it is paying for it are apparent. Most days, a yellow haze hangs over Shanghai’s construction frenzy. Pollution is the leading cause of death in China, killing more than a million people a year. And the primary cause of pollution is also the source of the energy propelling the ultramodern train: coal.
To keep pace with the country’s economic growth, China’s local governments, utilities, and entrepreneurs are building, on average, one coal-fired power plant per week. The power plants emit a steady stream of soot, sulfur dioxide, and other toxic pollutants into the air; they also spew out millions of tons of carbon dioxide. In November, the International Energy Agency projected that China will become the world’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, overtaking the United States nearly a decade earlier than previously anticipated. Coal is expected to be responsible for three-quarters of that carbon dioxide.
And the problem will get worse. Between now and 2020, China’s energy consumption will more than double, according to expert estimates. Ratcheting up energy efficiency, tapping renewable resources with hydro dams and wind turbines, and building nuclear plants can help, but–at least in the coming two decades–only marginally. Since China has very little in the way of oil and gas reserves, its future depends on coal. With 13 percent of the world’s proven reserves, China has enough coal to sustain its economic growth for a century or more. The good news is that China’s leaders saw the coal rush coming in the 1990s and began exploring a range of advanced technologies. Chief among them is coal gasification. “It’s the key for clean coal in China,” says chemical engineer Li Wenhua, who directed advanced coal development for Beijing’s national high-tech R&D program (better known in China as the “863” program) from 2001 through 2005.
Gasification transforms coal’s complex mix of hydrocarbons into a hydrogen-rich gas known as synthesis gas, or “syngas.” Power plants can burn syngas as cleanly as they can natural gas. In addition, with the right catalysts and under the right conditions, the basic chemical building blocks in syngas combine to form the hydrocarbon ingredients of gasoline and diesel fuel. As a result, coal gasification has the potential both to squelch power plants’ emission of soot and smog and to decrease China’s growing dependence on imported oil. It could even help control emissions of carbon dioxide, which is more easily captured from syngas plants than from conventional coal-fired plants.
Despite China’s early anticipation of the need for coal gasification, however, its implementation of the technology in power plants has lagged. The country’s electricity producers lack the economic and political incentives to break from their traditional practices.