The prospect of competitive of coal based MEG, is matched by potential for a number of alternative routes in a high oil environment.
Ethylene glycol is an 18.9 million ton global market growing at on average 3.7 percent per year. China accounts for 43 percent of global demand, and over 60 percent of global growth. Today China imports over 5.0 million tons of ethylene glycol, much of which is supplied by the highly competitive ethane-based producers in the Middle East.
MEG today is ethylene derived via oxidation and hydration. The technology is well-known and available for license from Shell, Scientific Design, etc, and can be built at world scale, i.e. greater than 500 000 tons per year. Ethylene is mainly derived from the steam cracking of natural gas liquids or heavier paraffinic liquids. There is some interest in Brazil in making ethylene from biomass-derived ethanol and in China investments are under way to convert coal into olefins via methanol.
The current process involves the gasification of coal, practised worldwide, but most notably in China. It should be noted that in Kingsport, TN, in the United States, Eastman Chemical also used coal gasification for acetyls production, indicating that certain coal based chemistries are commercially viable outside China.
The syngas provided by gasification has a low syngas number compared to natural gas. However, this suits the process of conversion to oxalic acid (empirical formula C2H2O4, molar mass 90.03 g/mol) where the hydrogen to carbon ratio is much lower than say methanol, i.e. 1C:1H versus 1C:4H. Hydrogen is however, required for the conversion to MEG (molar mass 62.07 g/mol). For around 200 000 tons per year of MEG, over 300 000 tons per year of oxalic acid will need to be made.
The concept is not new - during the 1970s and 1980s Union Carbide Corporation amongst others explored the opportunity to make MEG without ethylene. Within a Chinese context making MEG via oxalic acid enables production to be sited close to the mine mouth to exploit the benefits of the Chinese coal supply chain. An MTO-based approach could do the same in China, but more steps are involved and into the MTO process oxygen is removed from the methanol to make the ethylene hydrocarbon and needs to be added back in subsequent steps. The new process is less wasteful in oxygen.
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