Methanol — The OTHER Alcohol
One of the many ironies of the environmental movement is that in all the talk and hype about renewable energy sources, we almost never hear about one of the oldest and most versatile of all renewables — methanol. There are plenty of discussions of hydrogen and ethanol economies and electric cars operating on long-life batteries, none of which are likely to be economical on a large scale within the next 20 years, and yet almost no talk about the only viable alternative to oil today. And no, that is not a misprint – unlike all other options on the table, we have the option right now to completely replace petroleum oil with methanol. How is this possible?
Methanol is the simplest of the alcohols and this is where many of its key advantages are born. Its simplicity provides it with direct correlations to some of the most prevalent raw materials on the planet – water, methane, and carbon dioxide. It is also directly related to synthesis gas, a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The two simplest routes to creating methanol are:
1 part carbon monoxide + 2 parts hydrogen gas = 1 part methanol
1 part carbon dioxide + 3 parts hydrogen gas = 1 part methanol + 1 part water
Consequently, through a number of steps methanol can also be manufactured from a combination of one part methane and one part water. This method, called steam reforming, is the most commonly used technique today for the manufacture of methanol for industrial purposes. The overall simplicity of methanol lends itself well to a variety of other methods of manufacture:
- Gasification — Gasification of Natural gas, biomass, coal and oil shale can produce synthesis gases from which methanol can be catalyzed. This method can also be used to process waste materials that would otherwise be landfilled. [Sources of Methanol]
- Stranded Gas — Emerging technologies are focusing on the capture of stranded and flared natural gas and biogas sources. Stranded gas is gas which occurs in quantities and locations unsuitable for traditional natural gas production. In many cases, this gas is flared or burned directly into the atmosphere just to get rid of the gas as a safety measure. Portable systems to convert this stranded gas directly to methanol and other liquids are just hitting the marketplace.
- Carbon Recycling — While many are promoting the sequestration of carbon exhausts, where access to hydrogen (water) is reasonable, the carbon exhausts can be recycled into methanol using known processes. As shown above, both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are directly convertible to methanol. This carbon can come from captured industrial exhausts or from carbon captured from the atmosphere using Synthetic Trees.
These techniques also point to the natural logic of a methanol economy over a petroleum one. Large-scale production of methanol can be based predominantly upon the processing of waste streams. Municipal and agricultural wastes can be gasified into methanol and where that is not practical, the biogas released through their natural decomposition can be captured and converted. Exhausts from the industrial and commercial burning of fuels can be captured and reprocessed into additional methanol. And where these methods cannot produce enough supply to meet demand, natural gas, coal, and oil shales, the most prevalent natural hydrocarbons in the United States, can be processed to make up the difference. But where the fun really starts is in what you can do with methanol once you have it.
The dominant use of petroleum oil today in the United States is for transportation fuels. What sets methanol apart from the other alcohols in this role is its versatility that comes from its simplicity. Straight methanol is an alcohol that can be used directly in an Alcohol Engine, similar to a gasoline engine but typically with higher compression and special plumbing to deal with methanol’s being more corrosive. Many motorsports mandate the use of methanol as it works well in high-performance engines and is the least volatile of the major fuels in case of accidents.
Methanol can also be used in spark-ignition engines as a blended fuel. Most Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFV) in the United States can use a methanol/gasoline blend referred to as M85 (85% methanol, 15% gasoline). The FFVs currently on the road are really just standard gasoline engines with special plumbing so these will typically experience a performance decrease with M85. A better option for existing and older vehicles might be to use ExxonMobil’s MTG technology to manufacture actual gasoline from methanol.
Methanol can also play a critical role with compression ignition engines, typically called diesel engines. DiMethyl Ether (DME) is created by dehydrating methanol and performs similar to diesel, propane and LPG in most applications. Minor modifications are required but most existing diesel, propane, and LPG systems can be converted to DME economically. Methanol is also commonly used in the manufacturing of biodiesel, with most biodiesels being around 10% methanol by volume.
Methanol Fuel Cells
One of the more exciting applications for methanol is in fuel cells. A fuel cell is a device designed to harness the electrical energy generated by the chemical reaction of the fuel (an internal combustion engine harnesses the thermal energy, not the electrical). The fuel inside a fuel cell reacts with an oxidizing agent in the presence of a catalyst, causing a reaction that releases electrical energy. While this may sound modern and high-tech, the science behind the fuel cell originated in 1838 with the first working prototype operating in 1839. Most space programs have been using fuel cells of varying types of fuel to provide electricity and drinking water for manned missions since the 1960s.
There are currently two different types of methanol fuel cells in use, reforming cells that extract the hydrogen from the methanol, and direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC). Methanol is ideal for these types of applications as it contains a lot of hydrogen (more hydrogen by volume than liquid hydrogen) and is biodegradable (methanol in a natural environment will typically decompose in seven days or less compared to up to two years for gasoline).
While this technology is still early in the developmental stage, its potential is immense. Commercial methanol fuel cells are already entering the marketplace in applications requiring portable electrical power such as cell phones and laptop computers. Larger versions are being deployed for material handling systems, such as forklifts, to supplement and recharge battery packs. Vehicle prototypes are already being operated; few remember that Chrysler unveiled an operational 100hp methanol fuel cell vehicle almost 10 years ago. Toshiba, Panasonic, Yamaha, Motorola, Hitachi, Samsung, and DuPont are just some of the international companies already involved in methanol fuel cell production.
To understand the potential for the conversion to a Methanol Economy from our petroleum-dependent economy, it would probably help to consider some scenarios for the production, distribution, and uses of the product. Methanol’s primary advantage over other renewable fuels is in its ability to be integrated into something resembling today’s fuel infrastructure. Most of the technology to convert to a true Methanol Economy already exists.
We’ll start with production. Obviously, we could build a bunch of massive methanol plants but there are other options available that would likely be more suitable for fuels (large refineries would still be needed for chemical and gasoline production but these will typically be conversions of existing refinery infrastructure). We currently have a massive coal infrastructure in the United States and this is one of the easiest and lowest cost feedstocks available for methanol. Using what some call Clean Coal Technology (gasification), existing coal power plants can be converted to producing both electricity and methanol. The gasification process also opens the door for the use of biomass and oil shale in the same infrastructure for both power and fuel.
Another production option lies in the portable production units being developed for stranded gas applications. Many farms are now incorporating biogas processing systems to add additional revenue streams to the farm. Biogas is also a byproduct of wastewater treatment. As with methane, biogas can be reprocessed into methanol using similar systems. These portable production units could be deployed to the farms and produce methanol and ideally DME on site. In the case of farms, fuel delivery trucks already make regular stops at farms to deliver the fuel necessary for operating equipment. In a Methanol Economy, similar trucks would be used except they would be picking up fuel from the farms instead of delivering. Future versions of the portable units might even incorporate modules to allow for the processing of syngas, allowing the farmer to add energy crops, wood biomass, and plant Stover to enhance fuel production using small-scale gasifiers.
After picking up the fuel from the various production units, it will be transported to a fuel station that will bear a remarkable resemblance to today’s typical gas station. In various locations around the Midwest today (as of February 2011, 215 stations in 13 states), a new type of pump is being used called a Blender Pump. This pump allows fuel to be mixed at the pump instead of at the refinery. The current pumps are mixing E85 ethanol and gasoline for various blends but a second-generation pump mixing methanol and methanol-derived gasoline is certainly feasible. The system requires only the special pump and two storage tanks – one with the gas and one with the methanol. The user would then be able to pick a blend or could select either fuel to be pumped straight without mixing. This would allow straight gasoline for older and classic cars as well as 2-cycle engines where alcohol can be problematic as well as straight methanol for true alcohol engines and fuel cell vehicles.
Returning to our farm, or other rural or remote residence or small business, we can get a sense of the true value of a Methanol Economy. Stored in a special but reasonable tank, methanol can be directly streamed into a DMFC for producing electricity for homes and businesses. Add a “to be developed” dehydration module to the mix and we would now have DME for powering heavy equipment, fueling our furnace for heat, and powering our stove for cooking. Or for a commercial site, the DME might be used for powering material handling equipment. Now, if you happened to visit the previous links for DMFCs, then you’ve probably learned that a DMFC exhausts carbon dioxide and water, two elements that can be combined with existing technology to produce methanol – add a solar or wind system to generate low-cost power to electrolyze the water and we can recycle the methanol from the DMFC under the right conditions.
This leads us to yet another possibility – with the search for ways to balance the output from the thousands of wind turbines being installed throughout the US, why not methanol? A massive DMFC could provide stable power output while the wind isn’t blowing; when the winds come about, the excess power can recycle exhausts back into methanol. A similar possibility exists with solar power or really any given type of intermittent renewable energy.
The reforming fuel cell presents an entirely different idea. Since methanol is an excellent carrier of hydrogen (carrying more hydrogen by volume than actual liquid hydrogen), methanol could conceivably offer a future clean fuel for aviation markets. Methanol cannot be used directly as the fuel in modern turbofans because these engines cannot operate efficiently at ground level (they are designed to be efficient at altitude and speed). But why couldn’t we design a reforming system into the plane to convert the methanol to hydrogen, as is done with a reforming fuel cell? Hydrogen-fueled engines have been in existence for years – they haven’t been practical due to fuel supply problems. The proper research would need to be performed but reformed methanol could be the answer here.
These examples provide little more than a glimpse into what is possible within the construct of a Methanol Economy. For more information from true experts on this topic, I highly recommend the work of Nobel Laureate Dr. George Olah and his team in the book Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy. The basic technology to manufacture methanol literally from air and water is being finalized in laboratories today. In a future time, air passing through a manufactured appliance will have its carbon dioxide removed and chemically combined with hydrogen produced from ocean water via geothermal or nuclear energy. At this point, the potential of methanol becomes virtually limitless.
Methanol vs. Ethanol — The Non-Debate
A final word on this subject needs to be said and that is in regards to which is the preferred alternative fuel of the future, methanol or ethanol. While I am obviously biased in favor of methanol, the correct answer to the question is both, not either one or the other. Each has advantages over the other; each has limitations compared to the other. The best economy is the one that offers both, and even other fuels, in a manner where the consumer can choose which is best for his/her application.
Ethanol is arguably a better straight-up liquid fuel for use in optimized internal combustion engines; methanol is a better option to replace everything else that petroleum is used for today and offers more options for future use. Both options are significantly better than imported petroleum/gasoline. Both products, using the right methods and technologies, can be produced on a renewable basis in larger quantities and at lower prices than gasoline. Neither is particularly good at all applications while each is excellent at certain roles. We don’t need to choose one over the other – we need both. The sooner both sides understand this and work together, the better off all of society will be.
In today’s world of ever-rising gas and oil prices, more and more Americans are beginning to understand the need for an alternative to the status quo. An alternative to conventional petroleum is needed now more than ever. The only current near-term option for replacing large portions of the existing petroleum economy is methanol. Again, I have no quarrel with those who support ethanol and I believe it should continue to be part of the long-term picture.
But the bottom line is there are millions of engines already in service and for these engines, methanol offers the solutions needed to keep them running. Methanol can be dehydrated for use in compression ignition engines and it can be remanufactured directly into conventional gasoline – no other renewable has these capabilities. Methanol can also be used today as a feedstock for the production of chemicals and plastics – another role most other renewable options are incapable of filling.
More importantly, an investment in methanol to satisfy current needs does not sacrifice future possibilities. Existing engines, specialized for methanol, already exist in many off-road applications. Fuel cells powered by methanol are already part of an expanding commercial market. Viable feedstocks for large-scale manufacturing of methanol are already available and are reasonable in price. More renewable feedstocks are clearly possible. America has a problem and quite clearly, methanol can and should be a big part of the solution.