By Alison Kerester
Gasification Technologies Council
Energy is fundamental to economic growth. Economies cannot grow and people cannot raise their standard of living without adequate supplies of affordable energy. The global demand for energy is projected to rise by 56% between 2010 and 2040, with the greatest increase in the developing world.1 This growing energy demand is a direct result of improving individual prosperity, national economies, and infrastructure, and thus living conditions. With this demand in energy also comes a demand for products to support development.
Gasification, which can provide cleaner energy and products, is not new. Its origin dates back to the late 1700s when an early form of gasification was used in the UK to create “town gas” from local coal reserves. More modern gasification technologies began to evolve prior to and during World War II as Germany needed to create its own transportation fuels after being cut off from oil supplies. Later, Sasol in South Africa made the first strides in transitioning toward large-scale production of commercial, economically competitive gasification-derived products and was instrumental in developing the foundations of the modern gasification industry.
Today’s advanced gasification technologies incorporate significant improvements over those early versions; increased flexibility, vastly increased scale, and new applications are driving gasification technologies to gain greater prominence than ever before. The wide deployment of gasification technologies can be largely attributed to socioeconomic, energy security, and environmental issues. In addition, there is more variation in gasification technologies, with some developers focused on reducing costs through integration while others focus on smaller, modular gasifiers. Greater deployment of gasification still faces challenges, but the recent upswing, especially in China, clearly demonstrates the advantages of this technology for utilizing domestic energy sources to produce commercial products.
Gasification is a thermochemical process that converts carbon-based materials—including coal, petroleum coke, refinery residuals, biomass, municipal solid waste, and blends of these feedstocks—into simple molecules, primarily carbon monoxide and hydrogen (i.e., CO + H2) called “synthesis gas” or “syngas”. It’s quite different from combustion, where large amounts of air are blown in so that the material actually burns, forming carbon dioxide (CO2). There are several basic gasifier designs and a wide array of operating conditions. The core of the gasification process is the gasifier, a vessel in which the feedstock(s) reacts with air or oxygen at high temperatures. The CO:H2 ratio depends, in part, on the hydrogen and carbon content of the feedstock and the type of gasifier. This ratio can be adjusted or “shifted” downstream of the gasifier through the use of catalysts.
A key advantage of gasification systems is that they can be designed to have a reduced environmental footprint compared to combustion technologies. For instance, over 95% of the mercury present in the feedstock can be captured using commercial activated carbon beds. Capturing nearly all the feedstock sulfur is necessary because downstream catalysts are generally intolerant of sulfur. This sulfur can be collected in its elemental form or as sulfuric acid, both of which are saleable products. Slag created from the ash, unreacted carbon, and metals in the feedstock are also captured directly from the gasifier, requiring less equipment than what would be required for post-combustion removal of those same materials in the flue gas of combustion-based systems.
CO2 emissions can also be captured from the syngas in gasification plants. Greater than 90% of the carbon in the syngas stream can be captured as CO2 and processed for utilization and/or storage. Some studies have shown that transportation fuels can be produced with near-zero carbon footprints using gasification of coal and biomass with CO2 capture and storage.2
Gasification typically takes place in an above-ground gasification plant; however, the gasification reaction can also take place below ground in coal seams. With underground coal gasification (UCG), the actual gasification process takes place underground, generally below 1200 feet below the surface in coal seams that are considered not economically mineable. Recent advances in well-drilling technologies are now enabling UCG development of coal seams in the 4000–6000-ft depth range, with increased environmental protection and process efficiency benefits at these depths. The underground setting provides both the feedstock source (the coal) as well as pressure comparable to that of an above-ground gasifier. With most UCG facilities, wells are drilled on two opposite sides of an underground coal seam. One well is used to inject air or oxygen (and sometimes steam) and the other is used to collect the syngas that is produced. The ash and other contaminants are left behind. A pair of wells can last as long as 15 years. Under its New Energy Policies scenario, the International Energy Agency has estimated that emerging economies will account for over 90% of the projected increase in global energy demand.3 UCG could play a unique role in helping meet this rising energy demand by utilizing deep coal seams that would otherwise be unobtainable economically.
Additional information on the technical fundamentals behind gasification is provided at the end of this article.
Today’s Gasification Market
Finding a path to energy security is a chief concern of nearly every sovereign nation. In the past, fast changing markets have rocked economies that were overly dependent on a single fuel source, such as the oil shocks experienced by the U.S. in the 1970s. Today, perhaps the clearest example is the fact that even as European countries pass sanctions against Russia, they are still highly dependent on Russian natural gas. This dependence could be reduced, or even eliminated, through the use of gasification.
Even within borders, diversification of energy sources is crucial. Although the U.S. has access to inexpensive and seemingly abundant natural gas, the extreme cold resulting from the polar vortex in the winter of 2014 saw rapid spikes in natural gas prices. Around the world, oil and natural gas prices continue to fluctuate dramatically. In addition to avoiding price uncertainty, many nations have a strong strategic desire to use their indigenous energy resources to produce the energy and products needed for economic growth. Gasification facilities can be designed to use the carbon-based feedstock that is most appropriate for a given region.
Environmental concerns are also receiving increased attention globally. For reasons explained previously, gasification can offer environmental benefits in terms of reduction of a wide range of emissions. In addition, CO2 emissions can be significantly reduced if carbon capture, utilization, and/or storage are employed. Although environmental concerns may not be the principal driver for the deployment of gasification today, the advantages are undeniable. For instance, gasification can be employed to create low-sulfur transportation fuels, thus reducing one of the major contributors to urban air pollution.
Modern gasification technologies are extremely diverse in their feedstocks, operational configuration, and products. Gasification converts virtually any carbon-containing feedstock into syngas, which can be used to produce electricity and/or other valuable products, such as fertilizers, transportation fuels, substitute natural gas, chemicals, and hydrogen (see Figure 1 for examples of products from gasification). Polygeneration facilities can produce multiple products, one of which can be electricity, from the same initial stream of syngas; the integration of the different components of polygeneration plants can also increase efficiency and provide an overall reduction in the environmental footprint.
Gasification processes can be designed to operate using coal, petroleum, petroleum coke, natural gas, biomass, wastes, and blends of these feedstocks; this diversity is the fundamental reason that gasification can be used to address energy security concerns. Coal is by far the most common source of the carbon feedstock for gasification today—a fact that is likely to remain true into the foreseeable future as countries look for a way to utilize their vast coal reserves. China has clearly seized on this fact and is now leading the way on building new gasification projects.
Gasification is not a stagnant technology, nor is it a one-size-fits-all technology. Its use is growing globally and the regional growth is far from uniform. Generally, industrial gasification facilities are becoming larger by increasing the number of gasifiers as well as the gasifier size. The economies of scale, and sharing key equipment such as the air separation unit among multiple gasifiers, are bringing down the cost of the final products. However, these large facilities also come with a billion-dollar-plus price tag, so even though the end products may be competitive, in some instances the upfront costs are prohibitive. In such cases there are other options; project developers can turn to smaller, more nimble gasification facilities that are also able to produce power and products. These smaller projects could bring reliable power to a mini-grid. For instance, SES’ fluidized bed gasifier can be used to gasify a wide range of feedstocks without changing the gasifier design, making it a contender for distributed power generation.
Today’s gasification technologies are able to meet market needs throughout the world. To track projects, the Gasification Technologies Council maintains the Worldwide Gasification Database.4 This database is being updated annually, with the next update due in late 2014. The database lists 747 projects, consisting of 1741 gasifiers (excluding spares). Of the 747 facilities, 234 of them, with 618 gasifiers, are active commercially operating projects. As of August 2013, 61 new facilities with 202 gasifiers were under construction with an additional 98 facilities incorporating 550 gasifiers in the planning phase.5 The cumulative global gasification capacity projected through 2018 is shown in Figure 2.
Chemical production is the most common application of gasification worldwide (see Figure 3). Synthetic fuels (both liquid and gaseous) are also becoming increasingly important. The second most common application is liquid fuels, although there is also a large amount of planned production of gaseous fuels. About 25% of the world’s ammonia and over 30% of the world’s methanol is produced through gasification.5
In contrast, gasification for power has declined sharply, with many of the planned projects in the U.S. no longer proceeding.6 The emergence of abundant and cheap natural gas has been a game changer, making coal gasification less economically competitive in North America. In addition, environmental regulations in the U.S. have resulted in few new coal-based gasification projects being planned. Those projects that are proceeding have been reconfigured to capture CO2 and/or to produce multiple product streams—generally, power generation and/or urea for fertilizer production, and CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, such as is the case with the Texas Clean Energy Project. In the U.S. today, a primary interest is in waste gasification, as cities and towns seek to reduce the cost of disposing of municipal solid waste, reduce the environmental impacts of landfilling, and recover the energy contained in the waste. Although North America has generally turned away from new IGCC projects, IGCC projects are moving forward elsewhere; China’s 265-MW GreenGen project and the massive (2.6 GW available for export) Saudi Aramco Jazan refinery project are prominent examples.
Regional markets dictate which products will be most favorable in specific areas. Figure 4 provides an overview of regional market drivers and the products with the most potential to be economically desirable in the near term. Common traits mostly shared throughout India, China, and most of Southeast Asia are high natural gas prices and vast reserves of low-rank coal, which create a strong market for coal-derived substitute natural gas (SNG) facilities.
Although Figure 4 is based on the common belief that in the EU the potential for the expansion of gasification is limited, it actually could play a major role in reducing the reliance on imported natural gas.
Unquestionably, Asia is experiencing the strongest growth in coal and petroleum coke gasification (see Figure 5), with China leading the way. There are now a number of Chinese gasification technology companies that did not exist a decade ago. The high price of natural gas and LNG, coupled with LNG import restrictions in some countries in Asia (primarily China, India, Mongolia, and South Korea), are prompting those countries to utilize their domestic coal and petroleum coke to produce the chemicals, fertilizers, fuels, and power needed for their economies.
Coal Is the Dominant Feedstock
Coal is the primary feedstock for gasification and will continue to be the dominant feedstock for the foreseeable future (see Figure 6). The current growth of coal as a gasification feedstock is largely a result of new Chinese coal-to-chemicals plants.
Although there are many options for the feedstocks for gasification, coal is far and away the choice most often employed, for several reasons. Of course, energy security plays a role considering that coal is distributed globally. In addition, the price fluctuations in natural gas and LNG are another major concern. Figure 7 shows the price, in US$/MMBtu, of several fuel sources, including global oil, natural gas at two sites, and fuel oil, coal, and LNG in Asia over the decade from 2003 to 2013.
Fuel price volatility has affected industrial production of chemicals and other products for many decades. In the 1980s, volatile natural gas prices prompted Eastman Chemical Company to switch from natural gas to coal as a feedstock at their Kingsport, Tennessee, chemicals plant. Today, gasification project developers in Asia and elsewhere find themselves facing feedstock choices and fuel pricing options that can dictate project economics. Considering prices in Asia specifically (where most new large-scale gasification is taking place), oil, coal, natural gas, and LNG prices must be compared when considering new projects. In Asia, coal is by far the least expensive option. In addition, the price fluctuations for coal are relatively small compared to those observed in other fuel options.
Increasingly Larger Scale Plants
With a few exceptions, coal and petroleum coke gasification plants are becoming larger in scale to produce enough product(s) to meet market demand as well as to drive down the product price. Although the sizes of the gasifiers are not increasing substantially, the number of gasifiers per project is increasing. The increasing size of projects is resulting in the scale-up of the supporting equipment, such as the air separation units. Large gasification projects currently under construction or operating include:
- Reliance Jamnagar Refinery (India): The world’s largest refinery and petrochemical complex will be gasifying petroleum coke and coal for the production of power, hydrogen, SNG, and chemicals. The project will have over 12 gasifiers and is currently under construction. The first gasification train is expected to be completed by mid-2015 and the overall project by early 2016.
- Saudi Aramco Jazen Refinery (Saudi Arabia): This will be the world’s largest gasification-based IGCC power facility to convert vacuum residues to electricity for use both in the refinery and for export. This project is now selecting vendors and is expected to be completed in 2017.
- Shell’s Pearl Facility (Qatar): The world’s largest natural gas-to-liquids facility using Shell’s gasification technology is now operational.
- Tees Valley (England): The world’s largest advanced plasma gasifiers are being installed in the Tees Valley to gasify municipal solid waste, construction and demolition debris, and coal to produce power for an estimated 100,000 homes. This project is due to start up in 2016.
Although the momentum behind the application of gasification has increased, a number of challenges remain to increasing deployment. One of the most important is a lack of regulatory certainty in some developing countries. For instance, some gasification projects in India are having trouble gaining a foothold amid concerns about feedstock availability and timely project approvals. Restrictions also are being created by some governments demanding that all technologies be domestically derived, slowing the advancement of deployment in the near term.
The upfront costs associated with large-scale gasification projects remain a hurdle today. Although alternatives to the capital-intensive projects exist, they are unlikely to become a suitable replacement for large gasification projects that offer a lower-cost end product and produce the large quantities of products necessary to meet market demand, such as the chemicals and fertilizer sectors. Bringing down capital costs or finding ways to obtain the required investment will remain a challenge.
Although the capital costs for gasification projects receive more attention, the industry is also working to find ways to reduce operating costs, often through efficiency improvements. For instance, the ability to remove contaminants from hot or warm syngas instead of first cooling the gas (for use with today’s commercially available processes) has the potential to yield significant energy savings. One promising project is RTI International’s warm syngas cleanup project.6 Research is also being undertaken on the development of sulfur-tolerant catalysts, which would allow the sulfur in the syngas to be removed at a later stage in the process, which may be more cost effective.
UCG is a promising technology that today remains relatively undeveloped. There are still technical challenges to UCG that must be overcome, but the major hurdles are actually institutional and a lack of public understanding. Successful demonstration projects could deter misconceptions that UCG is unproven and damages the environment. Linc Energy’s new UCG project in Poland will help demonstrate the viability of UCG to the world.
A great deal of innovative work is underway on new gasification technologies. In addition to UCG, a number of nontraditional approaches to gasification are emerging. For instance, KBR’s new TRIG™ gasification technology, the Free Radical Gasification (FRG™) technology developed by Responsible Energy, and the lower emissions gasification technology developed by ClearStack Power, LLC are all examples of the innovative work currently being conducted that will yield tomorrow’s gasification systems.
The gasification market has evolved significantly over the last five years. Coal gasification, and particularly coal gasification for power generation, has declined significantly in the U.S., although there is a growing interest in waste-to-energy gasification in North America.
Coal-based gasification (and coal gasification for chemicals) is dominant in Asia and will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future. There is a growing market for petcoke gasification in Asia as well, as Asian refineries strive to remain competitive in the Asian market. High natural gas and LNG prices in Asia, the growing demand for energy and products in the developing world, and the need for energy security will all continue to drive the demand for coal and petroleum coke gasification.
These new plants are moving the deployment of gasification forward in a way that may not have seemed possible just 10 years ago. The tremendous amount of RD&D occurring globally promises that tomorrow’s technologies will be more advanced, less expensive, and more flexible than those in the market today. New experience, technical advancements, and the potential to integrate gasification with CO2 capture, combined with greater needs for energy security, may mean the coming years will fully unlock the potential for gasification that we’ve known has existed for decades.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2013, 25 July). International energy outlook 2013: World energy demand and economic outlook, www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/world.cfm
- Williams, R. (2013). Coal/biomass coprocessing strategy to enable a thriving coal industry in a carbon-constrained world. Cornerstone, 1(1), 51–59.
- International Energy Agency. (2013, 12 November). World energy outlook 2013, www.worldenergyoutlook.org/publications/weo-2013/
- Gasification Technologies Council. (2014). Database and library, www.gasification.org/page_1.asp?a=103 (accessed July 2014).
- Higman Consultancy, GmbH. (2013). State of the gasification industry—The updated Worldwide Gasification Database. Presented at the 2013 International Pittsburgh Coal Conference, 1619 September 2013, Beijing, China.
- Research Triangle International. (2014). Warm syngas-cleanup technology, www.rti.org/page.cfm?obj=278DDE67-5056-B100-31A62FC32B088667 (accessed July 2014).
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