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China Turns Coal into Plastic with Honeywell Technology

When China needed new ways to produce plastics, Honeywell introduced Methanol-to-Olefins (MTO), a breakthrough method.

It was the early 2000s and there was a problem in China: demand for plastics was far outpacing supply.

China faced a significant challenge meeting that demand in that it lacked a cheap, domestic supply of petroleum or natural gas, the two feedstocks traditionally used for making plastics. The petroleum China was importing was needed to make gasoline to support the growing number of drivers on the roads, and the natural gas it was importing was prioritized for use as a cleaner source for heating fuel.  What China did have was an abundant supply of coal.  In fact, China has some of the largest reserves in the world, but it lacked the viable technology to convert it into plastics.

Honeywell Introduces MTO Technology for Coal

China Turns Coal into Plastic with Honeywell TechnologyHoneywell has operated in China since 1935, when it established its first office in Shanghai. Recognizing the need for a new form of plastics production with coal as the base material, Honeywell collaborated with two companies to develop its breakthrough Methanol-to-Olefins (MTO) process. By 1995, Honeywell had successfully demoed its MTO technology in a semi-commercial scale unit.

The process to turn coal into plastics materials involves multiple steps. The coal is first converted into methanol, a highly reactive, liquid alcohol. That methanol is then converted into olefins—a class of chemical compounds—through a process like MTO. The two most common olefins that are used for plastics production are ethylene and propylene. These olefins form the building blocks for a range of plastics chemicals, fibers, films and other materials, which are then used to manufacture plastic end-products.

Honeywell has tracked China’s production of ethylene and propylene since the 1990s. From 1990 to 2015, ethylene production grew 1050 percent, from 2 million metric tons (MMT) to 21 MMT; and propylene production grew nearly 3108 percent for the same time frame, from 0.74 MMT to 23 MMT.

China Turns Coal into Plastic with Honeywell Technology 
SAPO-34 is the Honeywell catalyst that is used in the MTO process.
Honeywell developed its MTO technology to flexibly process olefins from any feedstock—be it coal, natural gas or other sources. This flexibility perfectly coincided with the radical changes happening across China’s industries during the turn of the century. As China became the world’s leading creator of plastics materials and end-products, technologies like Honeywell’s MTO became crucial to producing a constant supply, no matter the source.

Chinese Partners Adopt MTO

Most of China’s coal enterprises are state-owned, so there is a natural preference to use domestic technology. Understanding this dynamic, Honeywell partnered with long-time customer Wison (Nanjing) Clean Energy, a private, Chinese energy and high-tech company, to build its first commercial MTO plant.

China Turns Coal into Plastic with Honeywell Technology 
 Honeywell’s first commercial-scale MTO plant opened in 2013,
in partnership with Wison Clean Energy.
Wison licensed Honeywell’s MTO process in 2011. In 2013, Wison and Honeywell started up their first commercial-scale Advanced MTO plant in Nanjing. Since then, eight Chinese companies have licensed Honeywell’s MTO technology and a second MTO facility was established with Shandong Yangmei Hengtong Chemicals (Yangmei).

The Wison and Yangmei plants have had a combined production potential of 2.42 billion pounds of olefins since they began operating. Imagine a 24-inch water pipe—suitable for moving water across long distances, like from a reservoir to a city—that weighs 97 lb per foot of length. By that scale, 2.4 billion lb of olefins would build a pipeline 4,678 miles long, capable of covering more than one-fifth of the planet.

The decision to partner with private Chinese enterprises has proven to be very strategic for Honeywell, as it enables those companies to use their own engineering capabilities and combine them with Honeywell’s breakthrough process. Now, even state-owned enterprises are approaching Honeywell to license its MTO technology.

China Becomes More Self-Sufficient with Honeywell MTO

According to a 2014 report by Deutsche Bank, China is the only country in the world to use coal to make industrial quantities of methanol and olefins and the country accounts for 100 percent of the world’s dedicated coal-to-olefins production. 

To help China continue to self-sufficiently produce plastics materials, Honeywell recently unveiled a new manufacturing capacity in its Zhangjiagang campus that would produce the proprietary catalysts that form the core of its MTO process. The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by Honeywell UOP president Rebecca Liebert, along with dozens of local government officials. 

When it enters production in 2017, the new capacity will use local raw materials, support economic development in Jiangsu Province and incorporate zero-discharge wastewater treatment. On a broader level, the new unit will enable China to complete the entire MTO process domestically—from feedstock to final olefin production—thus ensuring a self-sufficient and sustainable means to meet ever-increasing demand for plastic.