Will U.S. Methanol Exports to China Help Alleviate Its Water Shortage?

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It is well known that China is facing a water crisis. With 20% of the world’s population, China has only 7% of the world’s fresh water. According to Liu Changming, a retired hydrologist for the Chinese Academy of Science, four hundred Chinese cities now face a water shortage of which 115 cities have severe shortages. Most of the problem is in China’s industrial north as illustrated in the graphic from www.chinawaterrisk.org.

China Water Risk

According to the UN, a region is “water-stressed” when annual supplies fall below 1,700 cubic meters per person. China’s Shandong province is particularly vulnerable with its annual per capita water availability at only 329 cubic meters; less than 1/3 of China’s average and 1/26 of the global average. (Tackling the Chinese Water Crises, April 6, 2016, World Policy Blog)

Also from Chinawaterrisk.org, demand for water continues to grow while its water resources decrease:


Over the 2000 to 2011 time period, water resources declined while demand rose.

If China carries on its business as usual, its water supply will not be able to meet demand by 2030.

2030 demand

As indicated in the above figure from Chinawaterrisk.org, 85% of China’s water is for agriculture and industrial uses. However, 38% of the agricultural and 51% of the industrial uses are located in water scarce regions. According to Greenpeace’s March 22, 2016 report, “The Great Water Grab — How the Coal Industry is Deepening the Global Water Crisis”

“…the continuing burning of coal for power plants and factories in Northern China, along with the growth of the coal-to-chemicals industry is exacerbating the water crisis. In much of Northern China, people are using water faster than it can be regenerated.”

As one of the steps to address its water crisis, China constructed the world’s largest water transfer system — the South-North Water Diversion Project. This $80 billion plus project consists of 2,700 miles of man-made waterways and canals to draw water from China’s southern Yangtze River to its water-sparse northern regions. Some skeptics regarding this massive project believe that it may not be sustainable and the South may not continue to have the water availability to transport the quantities needed by the North. Desalination plants are another option being employed. But these plants are costly and highly energy intensive.

So, what do U.S. methanol imports have to do with China’s water crisis? As reported in my March 30,2016 blog, “Will the Chinese Still Build their US-Based Methanol Plants?” and previously in my March 19, 2015 blog, “US Shale Gas Destined for China?” methanol exports to China could reach close to 20 million metric tons per year over the next 3-5 years in order to satisfy the feedstock requirements for the existing and planned Chinese Methanol to Olefins (MTO) and Methanol to Propylene (MTP) plants.

The chemical formula for methanol is CH3OH and its molecular weight is 32. The formula can also be written as CH2·H2O consisting of a methyl radical, CH2, and a water molecule, H2O. The molecular weight of water is 18. Looking at it this way, a methanol molecule consists of 56.25 % water with the CH2 methyl constituent at 43.75%.

MTO and MTP technologies utilize only the CH2 methyl radical to produce either ethylene (C2H4) and/or propylene (C3H6). The water component of the methanol feedstock is typically considered a waste product. But wait a minute, rather than a waste product to be disposed of, the water can be collected, stored and utilized for other industrial processes, thereby reducing the requirement for China’s indigenous water resources.

Thus imports of 20 million metric tons per year of methanol utilized for MTO and MTP plants also provide 11.25 million metric tons (cubic meters) of needed water to China. While this may be considered only a “drop-in-a-bucket,” in a water shortage regime any little “drop” may help. How and where China opts to utilize this unexpected water resource is interesting to contemplate.

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Marshall Frank

Marshall E. Frank retired from Chem Systems, where he was President and Managing Director, responsible for international consulting activities in North and South America and Asia Pacific. During his more than thirty years with the company, he had technical and administrative responsibility for a large number of multidisciplinary projects, both single-client and multi-client sponsored. Mr. Frank’s areas of expertise include natural gas utilization and conversion, the petrochemical industry, the refining and petrochemical interface, and alternative fuels. He also directed Chem Systems’ Financial Practice, which provided assistance to lenders in assessing the various risks associated with the financing of major international energy, petrochemical, and polymer projects. Prior to joining Chem Systems, Mr. Frank was involved in process evaluation, process engineering, and the startup of many of Halcon/SD’s proprietary processes at Scientific Design Company. Mr. Frank received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University.

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