Coal-to-liquid technology: holding the lifeline of energy in your hands

On November 3, 2021, the 2020 National Science and Technology Awards Conference will be held in the Great Hall of the People. The “4 million tons/year coal indirect liquefaction complete technology innovation development and industrialization” project was awarded the first prize of the National Science and Technology Progress Award. This project, which is full of the efforts of several generations of scientists, finally won the crown and won the country’s highest scientific and technological award.

In 2020, my country’s crude oil consumption will increase by 5.6% year-on-year, and its dependence on foreign crude oil will reach 73.5%. At the same time, the newly-added proven oil and gas geological reserves have dropped to the lowest point in the past 10 years. . How did the world’s largest single-scale indirect coal liquefaction project of 4 million tons/year come into being? What setbacks has it gone through? How did the independent core technology high-temperature slurry-bed Fischer-Tropsch synthesis process and catalyst overcome? The second completion of the project was led by Li Yongwang, a researcher at the Shanxi Institute of Coal Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, general manager and chief scientist of Zhongke Synthetic Oil Technology Co., Ltd. and has witnessed the entire process of innovation and development of coal-to-liquid technology for more than 20 years.

A bumpy journey, chasing the dream of “man-made oil”

Oil product safety is related to the country’s economic and social development. The reality of my country’s lack of oil and gas cannot be changed. It is of great strategic and practical significance to promote the development and industrial application of large-scale indirect coal liquefaction technology.

At 22:16 on December 5, 2016, the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis reactor of the 4 million tons/year coal-to-liquid project of Shenhua Ningxia Coal began to feed at 23:50 and all indicators passed the analysis. The process gets through. Nearly a hundred years after the discovery of the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis reaction by German scientists Fischer and Tompson, my country has fully mastered the industrial core technology of the advanced million-ton coal indirect liquefaction project, and has become one of the few countries in the world that has mastered this technology. one.

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A panoramic view of the commercial demonstration device of Shenhua Ningxia Coal to produce 4 million tons of coal-to-liquid per year. Photo courtesy of Shanxi Coal Chemical Institute

In the beginning, when Shenhua Ningxia Coal Industry Group Corporation decided to adopt the synthetic oil technology of Zhongke instead of the technology of South Africa’s Sasol, the coal chemical giant South Africa for its 4 million tons of coal-to-liquid project, it shocked domestic and foreign coal chemical industry experts. The curtain of the Chinese taking control of their own destiny and building China’s own coal-to-liquid industry has slowly begun.

In 2011, the first issue of “China Coal Chemical Industry” magazine commented: “In the past ten years, the quality of Chinese people has been improving, foreign cooperation methods have been changing, and the level of technology has been upgraded, but Sasol has underestimated the speed of these changes… at least Today, Sasol’s technology is not so mysterious and irreplaceable.”

The arduous negotiation of technology introduction came to an abrupt end, and Sasol, which was waiting for a price, retreated. Behind it was the rush of coal-to-liquid technology. In fact, this key technology that developed countries are all eager for, has suffered many cold encounters in our country, and almost extinguished the fire.

During the Second World War, Germany built nine Fischer-Tropsch synthetic oil plants due to the need for war machines. After the end of World War II, due to the rise of the petroleum industry, all coal-to-liquid plants were shut down. Immediately after the emergence of South Africa, the international community imposed an oil embargo policy on South Africa in the 50s of the last century. South Africa was forced to develop the coal-to-liquid industry. In nearly 60 years, South Africa’s Sasol has grown into the world’s largest comprehensive company. Coal chemical enterprises. In this field, technology really determines who is strong.

After the founding of New China, the coal-to-liquid technology was even more ups and downs. In 1950, Dr. Zhao Zongyu, who returned from the Berlin University of Technology, took over the German atmospheric cobalt-based fixed-bed Fischer-Tropsch synthetic coal-to-liquid plant introduced by the Japanese army. The expansion unit was restored that year, and the maximum output reached 47,000 tons per year. At the same time, in 1953, the Dalian Institute of Petroleum, Chinese Academy of Sciences, organized by Director Zhang Dayu, established the Coal Research Laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the predecessor of the Shanxi Institute of Coal Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. At the same time, it carried out 4,500 tons/year of molten iron catalyst fluidized bed synthesis oil. test. But at this critical moment, the discovery of the Daqing Oilfield made China abandon its pursuit of “man-made oil.”

Not long after the beginning of China’s reform and opening up in 1980, the accompanying world oil crisis, coupled with my country’s difficulty in finding new oil fields like Daqing Oil Field. The far-sighted energy scientists have set their sights on coal-to-liquid again. The Shanxi Institute of Coal Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has begun to research the fixed-bed two-stage gasoline synthesis technology of indirect coal liquefaction under the organization of the two directors Bao Hanchen and Zhang Bijiang. After more than ten years, the 2000-ton/year industrial test was completed in Shanxi Jincheng Fertilizer Plant from 1993 to 1994, and 90 gasoline products were produced. Due to the low oil price, shortage of funds, technical and economic reasons, the test Then it was temporarily stagnant. In the winter of 1997, Li Yongwang was recalled to the country. Upon returning to China, Zhong Bing, then director of the Shanxi Coal Chemical Institute, eagerly summoned to the office, “All the research groups participating in the coal-to-liquid research are on the verge of disbanding. You come back to be responsible for the development of the coal-to-liquid technology, and the personnel will be deployed as you wish. The team can’t disperse.” Li Yongwang couldn’t help taking a breath.

Li Yongwang first integrated five research groups related to synthetic oil, and decided to implement a major change in the main direction of the synthesis process, from the original fixed-bed Fischer-Tropsch synthetic oil process to a more advanced slurry-bed Fischer-Tropsch synthesis Oil craft. The task turned around, and the difficulty doubled.

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Li Yongwang and part of the research team. Photo courtesy of Shanxi Coal Chemical Institute

In 1998, the laboratory successfully developed a high-performance low-temperature slurry-bed Fischer-Tropsch synthesis iron-based catalyst. At the same time, the wax catalyst separation technology has made significant progress, and the technical and economic bottleneck of the slurry-bed coal-to-liquid process has been broken. Li Yongwang carefully analyzed the entire process from coal to refined oil, and believed that if the slurry-bed Fischer-Tropsch synthesis can be carried out at a higher temperature, the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis reaction heat can be fully utilized and the overall energy utilization efficiency of coal-to-liquid can be improved. This is the first time that a new high-temperature slurry-bed Fischer-Tropsch synthetic oil concept and process technology have been proposed internationally. In terms of the scale-up of the synthetic oil plant, Li Yongwang believes that the 1,000-ton slurry-bed coal-to-liquid plant is the smallest representative scale, which is already 2,000 times the size of the laboratory’s small-scale plant. It needs at least 80 million to move forward. Yuan investment in scientific research. This is almost a fantasy for the researchers of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Relieve the difficulties, coal-to-liquid out of the laboratory

Li Yongwang’s teacher and chemical engineering expert Professor Froment said meaningfully before he returned to China: “It is foreseeable that coal-to-liquid may have major moves in China within 10 years, and it will take at least 10 years for this technology to be industrialized. , Go back, boy, the kinetics and reactor knowledge I taught you may be useful.”

“At that time, when the mountains and rivers were exhausted, our scientific research funds were almost spent. Seeing that the laboratory will run in deficit.” Li Yongwang, who was struggling with funds for the industrial pilot test stage, and the then director Sun Yuhan in July 2001 This month, he reported to the former Vice-Institution of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Changjiang Mianheng on the research and development of coal-to-liquid technology. After that, Jiang Mianhengli initiated the slurry-bed coal-to-liquid 1,000-ton-level industrial pilot project, and the coal-to-liquid project was listed as the first batch of startups. A major project of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Knowledge Innovation Project, and received 30 million yuan of funding support, which also promoted the launch of the major project “Coal to Oil” under the “863” Program of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

In September 2002, the 1,000-ton industrial pilot test device was completed and the test run was successful. One stone caused a thousand waves, and the news that the coal-to-liquid pilot plant successfully produced oil received the highest attention in the entire industry. Shanxi Lu’an Group, China Shenhua Group, Xuzhou Mining Group, etc. came to inspect and asked to invest funds to further improve the coal production. Oil pilot technology. In February 2006, Shanxi Coal and Chemical Research Institute, Inner Mongolia Yitai Group, Shenhua Group, Shanxi Lu’an Mining Group, Xuzhou Mining Group and Lianshun Energy jointly invested to establish Zhongke Synthetic Oil Technology Co., Ltd., which was then implemented in engineering In the process, Zhongke Synthetic Oil Engineering Co., Ltd. and Zhongke Synthetic Oil Catalyst Co., Ltd. were successively established.

A technology must go through the process of “laboratory-industrial pilot test-industrialization demonstration-large-scale industrialization demonstration-commercialized large-scale production”. Li Yongwang said that coal-to-liquid is a very complex system engineering involving hundreds of There are several specialties and thousands of nodes, each of which has corresponding specialized personnel, and his unit has a complete set of core coal-to-liquid technology and catalyst production formula technology. If one person leaves, it will not only lead to technology outflow. , This project has to start all over again, and the loss is immeasurable.

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High temperature slurry bed synthetic oil reactor industrial plant. Photo courtesy of Shanxi Coal Chemical Institute

Li Yongwang combined the market economy with the internationally advanced reward system and developed a new type of incentive system. From the initial three or five people to more than 1,000 people later, Li Yongwang’s team is like a huge magnet, constantly attracting scientific research industry elites to his side. At the beginning of 2008, the science and technology team invested and owned part of the company’s shares through borrowing, which solved the problems of attracting, stabilizing and long-term incentives for science and technology personnel.

The socialization of equity is like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, speeding up the reaction speed of the transformation of scientific research results, and plugging wings for the construction and operation of the coal-to-liquid demonstration plant.

Step by step, a hundred-year dream will eventually become a reality

Less than ten years after returning to China, Li Yongwang has already taken a big step forward in industrial application of coal-to-liquid technology in accordance with the agreement with his mentor.

In 2009, on the Ordos grassland in Inner Mongolia, where the cold spring was cold, my country’s first 160,000-ton/year indirect coal liquefaction demonstration device was successfully commissioned. The black coal turned into clear diesel and spewed out. Researcher Li Yongwang, Shanxi Institute of Coal Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences Hug tightly with Zhang Shuangwang, Chairman of Yitai Group. In 2011, construction of the world’s largest single set of 4 million tons/year coal-to-liquid commercial demonstration unit was started. In 2016, it was completed and realized a one-time start-up. In 2017, it was completed and put into production in Inner Mongolia Yitaihang Jinqi with 1.2 million tons/year. And two million-ton coal-to-liquid plants with an annual output of 1 million tons in Lu’an, Shanxi…

With the growing scale of the factory, the focus of Li Yongwang’s team has also changed. “Our technology is basically mature, and the next step is to develop towards large-scale integrated integration, product diversification and high value. The development of comprehensive integration of ton or 10 million tons will accelerate the pace of technological upgrading, and form a complete set of new technologies for co-production of diesel-gasoline-aviation oil-lubricant-chemicals, and strive to achieve the capacity of coal-based synthetic oil to replace petroleum by 2025. More than 10,000 tons”.

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Coal-based synthetic oil products. Photo courtesy of Shanxi Coal Chemical Institute

In addition to technological advances, the external environment of coal-to-liquid is confusing. On the one hand, the price of coal and oil has always affected the development speed of coal-to-liquid technology and technology. On the other hand, the requirements for carbon dioxide emission reduction in coal chemical projects are becoming more and more urgent. “Coal-to-liquid has high profits and low profits. When oil prices are high, there are still profits from coal-to-liquid. When oil prices are low and coal prices are high, the profit margin is small.” Li Yongwang talked about the external environment of coal-to-liquid. “The global energy price system is now quite chaotic and it is not easy to predict. In the past, international crude oil has been above US$100 per barrel for ten consecutive years. The price of coal has suddenly risen by two or three times, and the change is too great.”

In order to curb the risks caused by the fluctuation of coal and oil prices, only through technological innovation, the technology is refined and detailed, and the economic benefits are improved, can we overcome the constraints of technological development caused by the fluctuation of coal and oil prices. Innovation is the source and inexhaustible of technological development. power. Li Yongwang said that our current focus is still to make great efforts to extend the product chain and make great efforts to deep-process and produce high-value special fuels, lubricants, solvent oils, and high-melting Fischer-Tropsch waxes. For example, Lu’an will produce diesel and naphtha. In addition to oil and LPG, it also produces high-value Taihang brand lubricants, a series of high melting point Fischer-Tropsch waxes and other products. Yitai also produces C6-C8 elemental n-alkane solvent oils. In the future new coal-to-liquid project, we will further improve the comprehensive energy utilization efficiency of the project, couple the carbon emission reduction technology with the coal-to-liquid technology, and try our best to reduce carbon dioxide, while meeting the country’s major core demand for oil and gas. .

Over the years, Li Yongwang and his R&D team have published more than 600 papers in the research and development process of coal-to-liquid technology, applied for authorization of more than 130 Chinese invention patents, and successively won the Outstanding Scientific and Technological Achievement Award of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Energy Science and Technology Progress First Class. Award, the Special Prize for Scientific and Technological Progress of China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Association, the First Prize for Technological Invention, the 21st China Patent Gold Award and other awards. They have become one of the most influential coal-to-liquid R&D teams in the world. Li Yongwang said happily, “Zhongke Synthetic Oil has completed the historical mission assigned by the state, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shanxi Province.”

What is the future prospect of coal-to-liquid, Li Yongwang believes: At least in the short to medium term, my country’s oil and gas shortage will be difficult to change. Coal-to-liquid is the first to meet the country’s core demand for oil and gas. Will play an important role. Looking at the long-term, Li Yongwang put forward a set of development ideas: “Our technology research and development focus will gradually shift from oil production to high-value chemicals and materials, and further expand the realization of low-quality lignite, biomass, organic waste, etc. Energy conversion of carbon-containing resources to achieve a new technological revolution, maintain continuous technological development and upgrades under the national “dual-carbon” goal, and make new contributions to the country’s future energy transformation and the efficient, clean, and low-carbon utilization of coal.”

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