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Ethanol from Coal, Natural Gas, and Coke; not from Corn

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Every so often a real solution to a national or international problem emerges to append the popular and politically-correct – but almost certainly wrong – hype of the day.

The November 9th announcement that Dallas-based Celanese Corporation has developed an “innovative process technology … to produce ethanol using basic hydrocarbon feedstocks” surely fits the bill. For this new process, anything from coal to natural gas to petroleum coke can be used; it’s that simple.

Within the industry, corn-based ethanol has been widely regarded as a disastrous failure. The agricultural lobby of course supports it, propagating what my colleague Robert Bryce has routinely called the “ethanol scam.”

With an adverse impact on food prices, this ethanol is also highly-inefficient. For example, it takes 1.6 gallons of gasoline equivalent to produce one gallon of corn-based ethanol using today’s technology. In addition, if we used all of the corn grown in the U.S. to produce ethanol for gasoline use, it would amount to roughly 20 percent of our gasoline demand.

There is nothing wrong with using ethanol as a gasoline additive to make up to 10 percent of our fuel blends. After all, it’s a necessary ingredient to boost the performance of conventional gasoline. This performance enhancement used to be derived from the highly-discredited tetra-ethyl lead back in the 1970s and earlier, followed by MTBE, which also has been recently outlawed.

Advocates of corn-based ethanol, however, have not been satisfied with ethanol comprising even 15 percent of fuel blends (the recently announced E15 standard), and are actually suggesting a larger percentage.

Celanese’s announcement is a game-changer though. With ethanol production now being suggested for industrial use, the entire notion of corn-based ethanol can be thrown on its head. This new technology can produce massive quantities of ethanol using an economically- advantageous process, one that would readily fulfill global needs without resorting to corn-based ethanol.

It is also not surprising that Celanese will begin production in China. The company plans to start with one industrial complex and then potentially expand with the construction of a second facility. Each one will produce approximately 400,000 tons of ethanol per year. Combined, the two facilities could provide more than 25 percent of China’s current ethanol demand of 3 million tons per year. This demand, moreover, is expected to grow 10 percent per year.

The feedstock for the Chinese plants will be coal, which has a two-pronged benefit. First, it uses an abundant, local energy source. And second, the technology converts the coal feedstock into an environmentally-benign fuel, instead of the alternative – burning the coal for electricity generation and, thus, furthering China’s already insidious pollution.

The U.S. will also benefit from this new technological innovation in several ways. A 40,000 ton industrial ethanol production unit is set to be built at Celanese’s Clear Lake, Texas facility. In this case, natural gas will be the feedstock. And, as a change of pace, this discovery is a reversal of the too often-repeated trend of China selling a good or service to America.

In essence, this breakthrough is a deployment of the quintessential American strength and technological ingenuity. This new technology is a real energy solution, and one that thankfully poised to put a stop to the growing use of environmentally-malignant and economically-harmful corn-based ethanol.

Celanese chairman and chief executive officer, Dave Weidman, stated, “While we [Celanese] are focusing on industrial uses at this time, we are also exploring opportunities to apply this technology to fuel ethanol applications in regions where the commercial environment is supportive.” This is indeed a solution to our varied energy challenges. Corn-based ethanol creates food price volatility worldwide, damages the environment and costs American taxpayers a hefty amount to subsidize.

Finally, a new innovative process has emerged to put the ethanol scam to rest. U.S. consumers and businesses should be thankful for Celanese’s ingenuity, for it is the embodiment of what America does best: discovering new technologies for the betterment of our future.

Dr. Economides is the editor-in-chief of the Energy Tribune and a professor at the University of Houston.


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