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.
July 12, 2016
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
Honeywell 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‚Äîa class of chemical compounds‚Äîthrough 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.
SAPO-34 is the Honeywell catalyst that is used in the MTO process.
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.
| Honeywell's first commercial-scale MTO plant opened in 2013,
in partnership with Wison Clean Energy.
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‚Äîsuitable for moving water across long distances, like from a reservoir to a city‚Äîthat 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.
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‚Äîfrom feedstock to final olefin production‚Äîthus ensuring a self-sufficient and sustainable means to meet ever-increasing demand for plastic.