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China’s Sci-tech Breakthroughs in Chemical Industry


Having set the goal of peaking its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060, China is now promoting energy conservation and emission reductions in various industrial sectors, including the traditional chemical industry.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a plan for the green development of its industrial sectors during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025), a step forward in the country’s pursuit of low-carbon growth by utilising technologies.

The plan urges traditional sectors, such as petrochemistry, iron and steel, and non-ferrous metals, to carry out low-carbon upgrades and transform into greener industries. Meanwhile, the annual Central Economic Work Conference this December pledged to strengthen the clean and efficient use of coal.

So far as the chemical industry is concerned, greener practices are getting a boost from the latest breakthroughs in chemical synthesis technology. This means that sub-industries such as fuel chemicals, inorganic chemicals and organic chemicals are becoming more environmentally friendly, with knock-on benefits across a wide range of sectors.

In 2021, Chinese researchers achieved several sci-tech breakthroughs in chemical synthesis. These include a method of synthesising starch from carbon dioxide, the first process of its kind globally, and a protein production method using industrial exhaust gas that contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and ammonia water.

The progress in 2021 also includes converting carbon dioxide and water into pure formic acid, turning biopolyols into carbon monoxide at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, and producing ethylene by hydrogenation of acetylene under mild conditions. Over 10 projects related to the petrochemical and coal chemical industries received awards. They included catalytic-cracking processing technology, the efficient exploitation of coalbed methane and rock oil, and crude-oil recovery.

Among them, the project of nano-confined catalysis won first prize in the State Natural Science Awards. This project realised the direct and efficient synthesis of light olefins and high-value chemicals such as ethylene, propylene and butene from coal-synthesised gas, with less water and energy consumption and lower carbon emissions.

Those achievements, ranging from laboratory experiments to industrial production, mean that basic materials for the chemical industry, such as ethylene, carbon monoxide, starch and protein, can be produced in a much greener way than traditional methods and with lower energy consumption and emissions.

The MIIT plan encourages the petrochemistry industry, a branch of the fuel chemical industry, to focus on direct production from crude oil and the use of coal-synthesised gas. China’s largest oil refiner announced its success in the industrial application of crude oil steam-cracking technology, which can directly turn crude oil into ethylene and propylene by skipping the traditional refining procedure.

Using the new technology, 1 million metric tons of crude oil can produce about 500,000 tons of various chemicals, including about 400,000 tons of high-value products such as ethylene, propylene, light aromatics and hydrogen. The crude oil catalytic-cracking technology, another technical route that can also turn about 50% of crude oil into various chemicals. The combination of the two cracking technologies is expected to raise the turning rate to 70%.

Supported by advanced technology, chemical plants in China have started to cut their carbon emissions. In Shanghai in East China, there is already a refinery that produces carbon-neutral products. The Shanghai Environment and Energy Exchange issued the country’s first carbon-neutral petroleum certificate to a batch of refinery products made by Gaoqiao Petrochemical, a Sinopec subsidiary in Shanghai.

As reported by OpenGov Asia, a white paper shows Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications will help China cut down over 35 billion tonnes of carbon emission by 2060, the year the nation pledged to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. At least 70% of China’s carbon reductions will involve AI-related technologies by 2060. The white paper was jointly released by research firm International Data Corporation (IDC) and a Chinese tech company that has greatly dived into AI technology in recent years.


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