Methanol – New Uses for an Old Molecule

Methanol – New Uses for an Old Molecule

By Shahid Ali

Methanol has been used for many decades in a wide variety of industries. New technologies are creating even more markets for this versatile molecule as the world seeks to wean itself from fossil fuels.

Methanol as Transportation Fuel

Methanol has been used as a racing fuel for some time now but now, it could possibly replace diesel and gasoline in some other industries. Theoretically cheaper for the consumer, methanol is also easier to store and transport, making it attractive in less industrialized parts of the world. From 2009-2016, direct methanol fuel blending has increased at an annual rate of nearly 23%. China used 7 million tons of methanol as a transport fuel in 2011. This comprised 5% of China’s total fuel consumption.

Methanol can be produced as a carbon-neutral fuel either by gasification of biomass or by using excess wind energy in combination with CO2 from combustion, thereby reducing emissions to the atmosphere. This is called bio-reforming. Successful industrial scale productions like CRI, BioMCN, Enerkem demonstrate this capability.

Methanol capacity and production is projected to reach, respectively, 135 million metric tons (MMT) and 95 MMT worldwide by 2021. China will likely remain one of the biggest users of methanol during this period.

Methanol as Chemical Feedstock

Another important step toward a fossil-free future could be the use of renewable feedstocks for industry e.g. “green” methanol for plastic production. The methanol, produced as described above from biomass or waste carbon dioxide, serves as a precursor for plastic production. A recent study suggested that a complete shift to renewable plastic could be a reality from a resource and technology perspective. Cost, however, remains a major hurdle, calculated as 2-3 times higher today than plastic produced from fossil fuel feedstock.

Efforts to improve the viability of methanol bio-reforming for both transportation and feedstocks focus on many different aspects of the supply chain and technology research. Supply chain issues include access to raw materials like hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, as well as improving the transportation infrastructure to move these raw materials. Key research areas include improved catalysts and gas purification methods. Policy analysts are also looking at ways to provide greater compensation for the climate benefits that could come from reusing carbon dioxide or displacing fossil fuels.

As an indication of the growing interest in methanol, these and other topics were discussed at a recent international Methanol Conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark. While much research remains, we could see more uses for methanol alongside other growth in the renewable energy industry.

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