China to Host World Biofuels Symposium

China's energy needs are expected to increase by nearly 50 percent in the next 12 years. Because much of this energy will be used by the country's burgeoning middle class to fuel its cars, keeping up with new demand for transportation fuel is going to be challenging.
By Craig A. Johnson | June 02, 2008
One of the world's oldest civilizations, China has cultures that stretch back more than 6,000 years. Not only is it home to the world's longest continuously used written language
system, it is the birthplace of paper, gunpowder and printing.

China is the world's most populous country, and everything the Chinese do seems to be on a scale unimaginable in other parts of the world. From the Great Wall to the Three Rivers Dam, China has a habit of "supersizing" its infrastructure. With an annual gross domestic product that has increased by roughly 10 percent a year since 2001, a growing middle class has begun to put a strain the country's energy needs. With this incredible growth comes a requisite rise in energy consumption. China accounted for 38 percent of total worldwide demand for oil in 2006. Along with this rise in consumption, China has recently received a measure of criticism for its contribution to global warming. As a result, biofuels in China are growing in popularity and scope.

China's stated goals of strengthening energy security by reducing its dependence on foreign oil, and mitigation of carbon emissions are laudable. However, another serious concern is its lagging rural economy. Coastal areas have seen soaring growth, yet much of the country's interior has felt few of the effects. Building a strong biofuels industry is the key to a steady, balanced approach to growing the economy.

A Meeting of East and West
This fall, at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, ethanol professionals from across the world will assemble for the fifth annual World Biofuels Symposium. The event, which will take place over three days in October, promises industry professionals an experience like no other. Representatives from various countries will be in attendance, but one highlight for American attendees will be the opportunity to interact with their counterparts in other countries.

Kurt Markham, director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Services division, which is known for its forward-thinking policies in the United States, is one of the event organizers. "At the last symposium, we had attendees from about 15 different countries," he says. "It really is a world biofuels symposium." The mission of the MDA is to look for opportunities to help Minnesota's agricultural economy adapt and thrive in the global marketplace. To that end, the symposium strives to create a forum for sharing information and resources between countries. "For people who cannot easily travel here to the U.S., like Iraq and Viet Namthere's an opportunity for those countries to learn about what the U.S. is doing, what China is doing, the sharing of information and policy and the technical aspects of the biodiesel industry."

Kathy Bryan, co-founder and president of BBI International, points to this information sharing as one way to approach the conference. "Every conference is a networking opportunity," she says. "The WBS is a particularly good opportunity for attendees to look at options they hadn't thought of before. There are always going to be things you are not expecting to learn, opportunities you are not expecting to see."

In the past, attendees have been the people who offer technology and services to the ethanol industry. While the Chinese are certainly interested in renewable fuels, the country has opportunities in other areas. "China is growing," Bryan says. "They want to eat more beef, there's more methane they're putting into the atmosphere as a result of cattle herdsthey have a responsibility to find ways to deal with that in the most environmentally sustainable ways."

Markham points to the types of business opportunities available in the country. "China is the world's third-largest producer of ethanol and has a growing economy in terms of purchasing power," he says. "Many Minnesota companies have been doing business in China for years. 3M has been in China for more than 20 years; Hormel Foods has been in China for seven years and has two slaughterhouses in China."

Snapshot of a Growing Industry
According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, China produced about 1.27 million metric tons (425 MMgy) of ethanol in 2006 from cassava, corn and sweet potatoes. In 2007, China increased its production by 12.5 percent to 1.45 million metric tons (485 MMgy). This is a small increase compared with what China intends to do in the next several years. In fact, according to the FAS, due to environmental and security concerns, China expects to produce between 3 million and 4 million metric tons (1 billion to 1.3 billion gallons) by 2010.

Since 1975, China has been a net importer of oil. Today, China produces as much as 70 percent of its energy from coal, using imported oil for most of its transportation sector. Oil consumption is growing rapidly as China's emerging middle class develops a taste for beef and the American fetish for driving new cars.

However, looking ahead, China seems to be moving away from using corn or other food grains for ethanol production. As of 2007, China has all but ceased granting licenses to build more corn-ethanol plants. While sweet potatoes will probably be used into the foreseeable future, according to the USDA, cassava is likely the feedstock of choice for future ethanol plants.

Just as in the United States, research into cellulosic ethanol is of interest. And like the United States, until the cost to produce ethanol from cellulosic feedstock materials comes down, it may be some time before large-scale production begins.

China, as of 2007 (the period for which most figures are reported), currently has four operating ethanol plants. The total annual capacity of the plants is 1.2 million metric tons (425 MMgy). Actual production figures for 2005, show that the plants combined produced 920,000 metric tons (308 MMgy). Three of the plants currently producing are corn based, with one, the 200,000-metric-ton (67 MMgy) plant at Henan, Nanyang, using wheat.

As China moves forward, none of the three plants under construction are expected to use corn as a primary feedstock. Two of the plants, both owned by China Resources Alcohol Co., will be in Guangxi, and Hebei. The first intends to use cassava, the second a combination of corn and sweet potatoes. The third plant under construction in China, a 100,000 metric ton (33 MMgy) per year plant in Hubei, intends to use ricethe first of its kind.

As these plants come on line, China will be looking for other ways to limit its need for foreign oil. The USDA estimates China's overall consumption at 1.2 million metric tons (40 MMgy) of diesel in 2006 and 40 million metric tons (13.4 MMgy) of gasoline. With growth accelerating at double-digit speed, automobile use increasing by 11.8 percent annually, for example, events like the World Biofuels Symposium are only going to become more important to securing China's energy future.

For more information about the conference, which will be held Oct. 19-21, visit the Web site at

Craig A. Johnson is the Ethanol Producer Magazine plant list and construction editor. Reach him at or (701) 738-4962.