Methanol electrofuel: A transport game changer

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The production and export of clean, renewable electro-methanol for blending with gasoline could completely bypass the need for fossil fuels.

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Iceland has begun exporting clean, renewable electro methanol to the Netherlands for blending with gasoline. While the quantities are small, this is a game changer for transport, petrochemicals and much more. It is a game changer because this methanol is renewable, low impact and able to be produced in sufficient quantities to completely avoid the need for fossil transport fuels.

The methanol is:

1. Renewable – because it is produced from nothing more than renewable geothermal electricity, water and geothermal CO2;

2. Low impact – because, unlike many biofuels, its production doesn’t require the diversion of food producing land or damage to the environment. Diversion of land to the production of biofuels is already causing starvation of people in some countries as well as damage to the environment. All renewable methanol requires is enough land to produce the renewable electricity and the space required for a compact production plant;

3. Able to be produced in very large quantities – Any form of clean electricity could be used and, if necessary, the CO2 could be extracted from the air;

4. Electro – because it provides a way of converting electricity into a transportable fuel.

In addition, methanol can be used to produce other fuels such as gasoline and diesel. (Gasoline was produced from methanol at Motunui (NZ) for a number of years using the Mobil process. The plant could have been operated to produce diesel if required.)

Renewable methanol, gasoline and diesel are transport game changers:

1. They allow credible, easily understood plans to be developed for 100% renewable transport:  Plans that:

a. Could be as simple as replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels (NOTE: Better plans would involve a mix of strategies);

b. Don’t depend on the replacement of the existing transport fleet;

c. Don’t depend on starving the poor or damaging the environment;

d. Don’t depend on forcing little old ladies to ride bicycles;

2. They free long term transport plans from the need to consider greenhouse emissions.

3. In addition to cleaning up transport, renewable fuels could also be used reduce emissions from a wide range of industries. For example, most of the 50 million tonnes of dirty methanol produced from fossil fuels each year are used as feedstock for the production of a range of petrochemicals. These petrochemicals would become renewable once dirty methanol is replaced by renewable methanol. The range of products that could be produced competitively from methanol would increase dramatically once the use of fossil fuels becomes unacceptable.

Methanol is not the only useful electro product than can be produced from nothing more than electricity, air and water:

1. Dirty hydrogen made using fossil fuels has a key role in the production of a wide range of chemicals. It can also replace fossil carbon in the production of metals such as steel. The production of renewable hydrogen using electrolysis is the first stage of the Icelandic process for producing renewable methanol.

2. Dirty ammonia is produced by reacting dirty hydrogen with nitrogen from the air. Renewable ammonia can be produced by simply replacing dirty hydrogen with renewable hydrogen. Liquid ammonia can be transported and used as a fuel in a similar way to LPG   83% of the predicted world 2012 production of 198 million tonnes will be used in fertilisers. The remainder is used for things like the production of explosives, nitrogen containing chemicals, disinfectants and refrigerants.

The processes outlined above are not the only possibilities for producing renewable, low-impact fossil carbon replacements in substantial quantities. Some of these, like this proposal for a salt water-based algae plant at Whyalla may take their energy directly from the sun. Others may involve different routes for converting clean power to fossil fuel replacement. It is certainly an area of active research.

The Iceland and NZ commercial production stories put together mean that we don’t have to choose between 100 per cent renewable transport vs destroying the economy, starving the poor or forgoing overseas travel.

The Beyond Zero Emissions Stationary Energy Plan provides one credible option for converting Australia to 100 per cent renewable electricity. The combination of an expanded version the BZE plan and the use of some of this power to produce renewable electrofuels provides a credible basis for converting at least transport and production of nitrogenous fertilisers to 100 per cent renewables. It also provides a credible basis plans to at least substantially reduce emissions from petrochemical and metal production.

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13 Comments
  1. David Miles 6 years ago

    What does Iceland have in regards to Methanol Electrofuel production that Australia doesn’t?? If this report is correct how will this impact on the fledgling Algae fuel industry??

    • Ronald Brak 6 years ago

      Iceland has cheap electricity and they have a convenient source of CO2. Australia doesn’t have cheap electricity currently but might in the future. The most convenient sources of pure CO2 in Australia might be breweries, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the idea of a combined brewery and methanol plant. As for algae fuel, well electro methonal is a long way from being more than a petrol additive or a replacement for dirty industrial methanol, so I don’t see why it should change what algae fuel people are doing.

  2. suthnsun 6 years ago

    I can’t see any process which relies on a CO2 feedstock as more than a step change – it can’t meet the ultimate requirement to reduce CO2 emissions by greater than 90%. The presence of a high concentration CO2 feedstock implies in most cases prior fossil fuel combustion and then an opportunity to sequester CO2. If the feedstock is synthesised into a transport fuel the CO2 is released to the atmosphere . Displacement of further fossil fuel combustion has occurred and is laudable and may contribute to lower emissions but can’t do the job to the required extent IMHO. On the other hand I do concede that mating a recycled CO2 fuel like this with the best hybrid technologies could conceivably get us close to a sustainable transport goal.

    Thanks for letting us know about these developments.

    • Jonathan Maddox 6 years ago

      A molecule of carbon dioxide is a molecule of carbon dioxide, give or take an isotope. It makes no sense whatsoever to criticise a scalable process like this which can displace large quantities of fossil fuels and reduce emissions, on the grounds that it isn’t a carbon-negative process in its own right.

      The carbon dioxide feedstock can come from anywhere. In this case, it’s gas which is continually released directly into the atmosphere by natural geological processes. Tapping into this stream to use temporarily as an energy carrier is entirely carbon neutral. The same would apply if the source CO2 were concentrated directly from the atmosphere, from a brewery or a biomass burner.

      For that matter, even if sourced from a fossil-fuel burner which would otherwise have vented to the air, how is that different from using plant-based fuels which have done photosynthesis on atmospheric CO2, some of which is undoubtedly of fossil origin?

      • suthnsun 6 years ago

        Johnathan, I was not stipulating a carbon-negative process. Where the feedstock comes from is very important I think.
        If it comes from naturally occurring geological processes (which may be the case in Iceland) then the process loop of synthesizing methanol for transport combustion and then release of exhaust gases is more or less carbon neutral, a detailed analysis would need to be undertaken to understand whether the lifetime emissions of such a process were 20g CO2/Kwh or 200g for example. In any case it may well be fine as a low emissions product. On the other hand, if a process was initiated today to utilize modestly concentrated flue gas from a brown coal power station, there is no possibility of the resultant transport fuel being low emissions, since it’s synthesis was dependent on the prior coal combustion. Adding such a process would add significant emission overheads in any case but even without that calculation we can have no doubt that we would be perpetuating and enmeshing a process which we cannot afford to exist (brown coal burning)
        Biomass (preferably biowaste) based feedstocks could be close to carbon neutral , hence sustainable, since they do complete a carbon cycle without reference to digging up fossil fuels. As I understand it, direct synthesis from air is very expensive since the feedstock is very dilute, so there are better ways to obviate the need to dig up more fossil fuels.

        Whatever we do to make progress on this front, we need to understand that our emissions problem consists of continually digging up and *adding* CO2 which was previously dead and well-buried. We did this last year at 35 Gt for the year and long term we can only afford to be doing it at around 7 Gt per year, the dire risks we face can only be addressed by getting down to 7Gt *as fast as possible*

        • John D 6 years ago

          There is no point in mining fossil carbon just to provide the CO2 required for methanol production. However, where CO2 is the byproduct of some activity such as cement manufacture using that CO2 to make methanol that replaces fossil fuels is a plus for the environment.
          The current concentration of CO2 in the air is 398 ppm and rising. At sea level and 20 deg C this is equivalent to .00045kg methanol/m3. Sounds small but if the wind at 10 km/hr was driving air over a CO2 collector the theoretical recovery would be 4.5 kg methanol equivalent per hr.
          Not good but not impossible. To put the above in context, a car that consumes 1500 kg of fuel per yr would require about 0.04 m2 of absorber area (across the wind) for an average wind speed of 10 km/hr.
          The other alternative is to use renewable liquid ammonia. Ammonia is made by combining hydrogen with nitrogen from the air. It can be used to run cars after minor engine adjustments and has about the same energy intensity as methanol.

          • suthnsun 6 years ago

            John D, I agree this process is important and could well be of use and there may be industrial or natural sources of concentrated CO2 which allow economic production – that is fantastic. I think cement production as currently seen at 2Gt CO2 worldwide, won’t be part of the equation, we don’t have the CO2 budget for that amount from a single process and fortunately CSIRO and others have already devised near equivalent cements with 80-90% less CO2 emissions in the lifecycle.

            Another approach is indicated here, using seawater as the feedstock;
            http://bravenewclimate.com/2013/01/16/zero-emission-synfuel-from-seawater/

          • John D 6 years ago

            Thanks for that link. It is a mine of useful information. Perhaps we could have an industry on the barrier reef that is actually good for the reef?
            A couple of things to keep in mind.
            1. Ammonia is an alternative to methanol that doesn’t need a source of carbon. Would be OK for most forms of transport even though it has about half the energy intensity of petrol. Paying extra for higher energy intensity fuels that contain carbon may be justified for uses where energy intensity is important (such as long distance flying.)
            2. The nature of renewable power sources such as wind and solar is there will be times when lots of zero cost surplus power will be available. May be relevant for high power cost parts of the fuel production process.

    • John D 6 years ago

      The aim of this article was to demonstrate that a transportable, renewable, low impact fuel could be produced in sufficient quantities to completely replace fossil fuels. The other key criteria was that this fuel could be produced by linking processes that have already been used commercially.
      It was also important that fuels could be produced with similar energy intensity to that of jet A fuel. This is important for long distance air transport. This was the reason for mentioning that gasoline had been produced commercially from methanol for a number of years.
      I have an open mind about what mix of renewable, low impact fuels might be used in the longer term and the methods that might be used to produce these fuels. If you Google electrofuels, “renewable fuels” or something more specific it is obvious that a lot of alternatives are being actively considered.

  3. John D 6 years ago

    Just by the way 100% methanol is used as a racing fuel. Its high octane number allows very high compression ratios to be used and more energy to be crammed into the cylinder. See http://www.bp.com/liveassets/bp_internet/australia/corporate_australia/STAGING/local_assets/downloads_pdfs/f/Petrol_Racing_Fuels_Octans_Power.pdf

  4. John D 6 years ago

    Cement is responsible for about 5% of world emissions. Annual consumption of cement is about 3 tonnes per capita world wide See: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/05/09/emissions-from-the-cement-industry/
    Wikapedia says one tonne cement generates 0.9 tonnes CO2. See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cement#CO2_emissions

    Put these two figures together and you have enough CO2 to produce about 2000 litres of methanol per capita. (Sure there a lot of things that could be done to reduce cement emissions. Ditto to reduce the amount of renewable methanol required to keep the things going (where ammonia cannot do the job)and hlpe clean up the petrochemical industry.

    • suthnsun 6 years ago

      John D, I think you may have ‘crosslinked’ concrete and cement production figures. CO2 from cement production is approx 2Gt. So closer to around 200 litres per capita methanol?

      • John D 6 years ago

        Whoops. Yep 200 to 250 litres per yr per capita world wide.

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