Alabama Coal Fuels Eastman’s Syngas Operation
Domestic mine by Harold Hough
Mention Alabama to someone and probably two of the last things they will associate with state will be high tech coal to syngas production and chemicals for film. Yet, Alabama coal fuels a modern chemical plant in Tennessee that also produces many of the chemical feed stocks for manufacturing film and even synthetic fuel.
Ironically, this isn’t a new operation. The plant is nearing a third of a century in operation, first as a subsidiary for Eastman Kodak until 1994, and now as an independent chemical company.
Producing the chemicals for film at a reasonable price has always been a challenge. After World War One, Kodak founder George Eastman couldn’t find enough methanol for film manufacture. This led the company to find and buy an abandoned wood distillation plant in NE Tennessee.
Although wood distillation filled the need for a few decades, the growing demand for film forced Eastman to look for other feedstocks for their chemicals. After World War Two, the new petroleum discoveries in Texas caused Eastman to rely upon petroleum as a feedstock as the base for its chemical industry.
But, the company realized that oil prices could go up as domestic oil production declined and make its film production costs skyrocket. As a result, in the 1960s, some engineers began looking at new methods to produce film if oil became too expensive. By the early 1970s and the first oil shortage, Eastman began to push for a new feedstock. Although it required a big capital investment, Eastman bought the technology for coal gasification from Texaco.
Although we think of coal in terms of energy production, coal has traditionally been an important chemical feedstock that can be used for a variety of processes from film production to aspirin manufacture. In the mid 1800s, German chemists like August Hofmann began working with coal tar and its components like aniline. These coal byproducts proved to the building blocks of the chemical revolution that occurred in the 1800s. In fact, Felix Hoffmann, who worked for Bayer, produced a new drug called aspirin in 1897 by using acetyl that came from coal.
Unfortunately, the discovery of large petroleum fields in the US and around the world offered a cheaper chemical feedstock than coal. The result was that many chemical industries forgot about using coal and converted to oil for the production of their chemicals.
Eastman however understood that petroleum couldn’t carry the chemical industry forever. In 1980, Kodak made its biggest capital investment in a coal gasification plant at the site of the old wood distillation plant, which was conveniently located near Appalachian coal fields. It began operations in June 1983 and began gasifying 900 tons of coal daily. The plant was able to produce half of Eastman Kodak’s acetyl needs, which lessened the company’s demand for petroleum.
Today, the plant processes about 1,300 tons of coal for chemical production and another 5,000 tons for the Eastman power plant. Eastman says the plant removes nearly 100% of the sulfur, mercury, and arsenic.
Eastman’s demand for coal means a lot of business for coal mining companies from West Virginia to Alabama. However, Alabama’s proximity makes it a competitive supplier due to transportation costs. Walter Energy is one such provider. Although Walter Energy is usually associated with metallurgical coal, it also provides steam and industrial coal through its subsidiary Walter Minerals. WM’s two deep-shaft underground mines — Mines No. 4 and No. 7 — use the standard "continuous mining" method for development and advanced "longwall" mining technology for primary production. In contrast to surface mining or typical underground mines located 200 to 500 feet below the surface, Walter's mines are 1,500 to 2,200 feet underground, making them the deepest vertical shaft coal mines in North America.
Although Eastman’s coal gasification will probably not be fueling your car, it is critical for reducing reliance on foreign petroleum. The US has 250 years of coal reserves, which makes it the nation with the greatest abundance of coal in the world. In fact, according to experts, the state of Illinois has more coal energy in the ground than Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have oil energy combined. Although we think of coal in terms of energy, it’s an important feedstock for the chemical industry that will allow American chemical companies to remain competitive internationally, even if oil prices continue to go up. It promises a clean, valuable use of coal that will sustain the coal industry for decades to come.