The methanol economy

22 January 2009 - Save the planet!

Introduced in 2003 but slow to infiltrate the mainstream, George Olah recently provided an update to his methanol economy (DOI). According to the Nobel Prize winner, methanol is an efficient energy carrier superior to hydrogen, a general feedstock for the chemical industry and on top of that methanol can save the climate from carbon dioxide induced global warming.

Methanol can easily compete with hydrogen (see hydrogen economy) as a transportation fuel. It is already mass-produced, its toxicity overrated (500mg per day intake is considered safe), has a favorably octane rating although the cetane number is lower. An even better candidate is demethyl ether (DME) which can be produced by MeOH dehydration.

Methanol can be used to make a lot of other chemical products. In the methanol to olefin (MTO) process, DME is dehydrated once more, this time to ethylene using for instance the zeolite ZSM-5.

Methanol is linked to global warming remediation because carbon dioxide be converted to methanol by reaction with hydrogen. Capturing CO2 is an ongoing research effort in itself and recently summarized in the New Scientist (here). The proposed methods involve passing air through sodium hydroxide or calcium oxide either in solution or solid which will capture carbon dioxide to form sodium or calcium carbonate. When the scrubber is saturated it is heated to release concentrated carbon dioxide whilst regenerating the oxide.

Carbon dioxide sequestration (the second step) is generally supposed to involve underground storage for example in disused gasfields but Olah at least won't hear of it: earthquakes or other ground movements could result in devastating CO2 release. His solution is conversion to methanol and he directs our attention to Carbon recycling International that is as we speak building a CO2 to MeOH plant (4.5 million liters p.a.) with hydrogen generated from water via hydrothermal energy. Another company Mitsui Chemicals has started a pilot facility with hydrogen production based on solar energy. As an alternative to water splitting, hydrogen can also be produced in the so-called Carnol cycle from methane with as only by-product carbon soot.

This methanol economy holds the promise of chemical industry generating healthy global warming profits with carbon-neutral cars whizzing by, which must come as a disappointment to those who use the global warming threat as a pretext for the reversal of civilisation. So be it.