IHS Chemical Week


Why Restrict Ethanol Sources to Renewables?

3:29 PM MST | November 16, 2011 | By JOHN FOTHERINGHAM

This is the fifth in a series of posts from Celanese on linking sustainability to your business operations. To read Celanese Senior VP Jim Alder's take on sustainability and budgeting, click here, energy efficiency and innovation, click here; general manager of Ticona Michael Stubblefield’s views on developing sustainable products, click here; and Senior VP John Wardzel’s views on how innovation is the key to solving the energy puzzle, click here.
We can only wish the price of gasoline would fall along with the autumn temperatures to give everyone a break from rising digits. One way to ease the price pressure is by continuing to add ethanol to gasoline. But I’m not talking about the ethanol traditionally produced from the world’s precious food sources.
As a part of Celanese’s commitment to sustainability, we have developed a new large-scale ethanol production method using hydrocarbon sources such as natural gas rather than corn or other food sources. And the Celanese production costs for ethanol are about a third lower than corn-based methods.
We believe hydrocarbon-based ethanol is a viable player among the world’s liquid fuels because it provides a flexible and more cost effective ethanol source for industrial manufacturers and fuel refiners worldwide. And even better, it doesn’t impact food supplies and prices or arable land.
But the U.S. regulations restrict fuel additives to only allow renewable sources, and corn-based production is financially subsidized.
Corn-based ethanol has written its own story. Wholesale prices are unstable and escalating, and, when we use feedstocks to produce ethanol, the price of food often goes up. Corn as an ethanol source is also inefficient considering the resources needed to plant, grow, harvest, refine and transport it – if we could grow enough. Even if the entire corn supply in the United States, the world’s biggest producer, were converted to motor vehicle fuel, it would only fulfill about 25% of the U.S. gasoline demand.  
While we’re initially targeting the industrial-use market, we plan to apply the technology in the larger transportation fuel-use market. China, with the world’s most rapidly growing transportation fuels and energy demand, is one of the company’s initial targets.
The company will launch Celanese TCX™ ethanol production in China targeting industrial ethanol applications. Chemically similar to fuel-use ethanol, industrial-use ethanol is a smaller, but rapidly growing segment. With planned new production plants and modifications to an existing facility, Celanese will have the capability to use coal to produce more than 1.1 million tons of ethanol annually in China.
We plan to build a developmental Celanese TCX™ ethanol production unit at our Clear Lake, Texas facility, where the technology was invented. This facility will use natural gas as the primary raw material. But for now, production in the U.S. will be limited to technology advancement only. Current legislation does not allow ethanol produced from natural gas to be used as a fuel blend – even though the cost of ethanol produced using Celanese TCX™ technology is equivalent to gasoline produced at about a third lower than corn-based methods.
The benefits of hydrocarbon-based ethanol are clear. By using the most available and economically viable hydrocarbons in the region, Celanese’s innovative TCX™ technology has significant cost advantages over conventional ethanol production methods and will reduce an economy’s dependence on foreign oil and the use of arable land.
If the economics and sustainability of hydrocarbon-based production measure up, why limit ethanol production sources?
John Fotheringham is general manager, Advanced Fuel Technologies at Celanese. For more information, visit www.celanesetcx.com.

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