Saturday, August 11, 2007

China's Coal Future, part I

As I go through the link-vault this weekend I will be posting older bookmarks that I somehow misplaced or outright forgot. This two-parter from MIT is a good one.

...Between now and 2020, China's energy consumption will more than double, according to expert estimates. Ratcheting up energy efficiency, tapping renewable resources with hydro dams and wind turbines, and building nuclear plants can help, but--at least in the coming two decades--only marginally.

Since China has very little in the way of oil and gas reserves, its future depends on coal. With 13 percent of the world's proven reserves, China has enough coal to sustain its economic growth for a century or more. The good news is that ­China's leaders saw the coal rush coming in the 1990s and began exploring a range of advanced technologies.

Chief among them is coal gasification. "It's the key for clean coal in China," says chemical engineer Li ­Wenhua, who directed advanced coal development for Beijing's national high-tech R&D program (better known in China as the "863" program) from 2001 through 2005.

Coal and Cashmere

Northern China is fast becoming the epicenter of China's energy industry. The leading draw is the Shenfu Dongsheng coalfield, a 31,000-square-kilometer solid layer of shallow coal that stretches from the northern tip of China's Shaanxi Province to the southern edge of Nei Mongol, or Inner Mongolia. The Dongsheng field's estimated reserve of 223.6 billion tons of coal makes it the world's seventh largest; efforts to convert much of that coal to transportation fuels could make it the world's most profitable.

Until recently, Inner Mongolia's coal capital, Erdos, was largely untouched by the modern world, bounded by mountain ranges and the Great Wall to the south and by the Yellow River to the north. Its isolation is now over, thanks to freshly poured highways and new rail lines rolling over its fissured hills and steep valleys. An airport should open this year.

Erdos's GDP doubled between 2001 and 2004, largely because of coal, chemicals, and cashmere (Erdos supplies a quarter of the world's cashmere).

More from MIT's Technology Review