Published on June 25th, 2013 | by James Ayre


CO2 Into Methanol — Highly Effective Conversion Method Developed

June 25th, 2013 by  

A very effective means of converting CO2 directly into methanol fuel has just been created, thanks to researchers from Université Laval.

"Car exhaust releasing carbon dioxide. Researchers have been looking for a way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol in a single step using energy-efficient processes for years." Image Credit: Car Exhaust via Flickr CC

“Car exhaust releasing carbon dioxide. Researchers have been looking for a way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol in a single step using energy-efficient processes for years.”
Image Credit: Car Exhaust via Flickr CC

A single-step way to convert carbon dioxide directly into methanol has long been a goal of researchers in the field. “In the presence of oxygen, methanol combustion produces CO2 and water,” explained Professor Frédéric-Georges Fontaine. “Chemists are looking for catalysts that would yield the opposite reaction. That would allow us to slash greenhouse gas emissions by synthesizing a fuel that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

The new catalyst — created by Fontaine and his research team — is composed of two different chemical groups. The first is borane — a compound made of boron, carbon, and hydrogen. The second is phosphine — a compound made of phosphorus, carbon, and hydrogen.

“Unlike most catalysts developed thus far to convert CO2 into methanol, ours contains no metal, which reduces both the costs and toxic hazard of the catalyst,” stated Fontaine.

Université Laval provides details on the new method:

CO2 to methanol catalysis requires a source of hydrogen and chemical energy. The researchers had the idea of using a compound called hydroborane (BH3), and the results have been spectacular. The reaction achieved is two times more effective than the best catalyst known — and it produces little waste. What makes the discovery even more compelling is the fact that the chemical reaction does not damage the catalyst, which can be reactivated by adding new substrate.

There is a downside (as of now) to this method, though. “Our approach to creating methanol is highly effective from a chemistry standpoint, but for now the process is expensive,” explained Professor Fontaine. “It takes a lot of energy to synthesize hydroborane, which makes it more expensive than methanol. We are working on ways to make the process more profitable by optimizing the reaction and exploring other hydrogen sources.”

Clearly, until “the price is right,” this scientific advancement won’t be having an affect on the market.

The new findings were just detailed in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • JamesWimberley

    Threre’s a post over at Renewables International on a new 6 MW power-to-gas (P2G) plant in Germany built for Audi. It doesn’ t look as if it needs concentrated rather than atmospheric CO2. Renewable synfuel may still be uneconomic, but it’s well out of the lab and into real pilot industrial plants.

  • Bob_Wallace

    There’s another downside. These approaches need sources of concentrated CO2, they don’t work with atmospheric levels.

    That means that they need fossil fuel plants feeding them CO2.

    Let’s quit flogging this tired old ICE technology and move on to electricity…

    • dynamo.joe

      There are other sources Bob. I think beer and concrete are heavy CO2 producers, for example. And those are necessities.

      I know there was a electric aircraft article recently, but we are a long way from electric commercial aviation.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Concrete – there are ways to drastically cut the CO2 with concrete. If they prove out a bit more I think we can see some cuts there.

        Beer – the CO2 from the beer itself is not de-sequestered carbon. It’s carbon that was already above ground. The heat needed – that needs to come from renewables.

        Yep, we’re not close to electric commercial aviation. But we can move a very significant amount of air travel to HSR.

        (This is an article about vehicle fuel….)

        • RobS

          Whilst I think we will see a large shuttering in of the 20-40 year old fossil fuel stations it will be a long time before we do away with fossil fuel baseload altogether. Even if we see an 80% reduction in fossil fuel that still leaves 20% remaining, and if this technology can sequester the CO2 from those remaining plants then that seems like a good outcome.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Baseload fossil fuel may be gone sooner than you suspect. Cheap wind and solar cuts the heck out of profits for coal.

            Coal is on its way out in CA. I suspect Oregon and Washington are working it out of their grids.

            Dispatchable fossil fuel will last longer. However very cheap and fast to build storage like Ambri’s liquid metal battery could do it in.

            Back east, where some states are 60% or more coal will take longer.

          • RobS

            It would take a staggering collapse in profits to see Coal plants that have been commissioned this year (1 so far) or in the last few years shut down within a year or so of opening and resulting in a total loss of all invested capital. I expect many plants in their middle to elder years will start to be shuttered far earlier then initially intended as profit margins shrink and repair costs rise but seriously doubt whether newer plants built in the last 5 years will be shuttered any time soon, they are the ones for which this technology could be applied.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I would guess that older plants are less efficient and would be first to be shut down. Being older they also probably have higher maintenance costs.

            Coal isn’t going to disappear overnight. But it’s fairly clear that fading away has commenced….

  • dynamo.joe

    How is an immediately lethal gas less toxic than a heavy metal which will give you cancer in 30 years?

  • Jim Nelson

    Something has been left out, by either the university puff piece or the writer. Why should it matter that hydroborane is “more expensive than methanol” if it’s merely a regenerable catalyst of the conversion reaction? Platinum is more expensive than gasoline, too, but it’s used in all automobile catalytic converters.

    Something else that’s the fault of neither: this page shows TWO ads from the conservative group “Americans for Prosperity” AGAINST carbon taxes. Why is CleanTechnica helping knuckledraggers fight sustainability?

    • I don’t think that any site gets to pick and choose who advertizes on their page. It may be that those ads are targeted at people like us reading this site precisely because they want to try and convince us?


      • Bronque

        well, that being the case, everyone should click on it (as there will likely be no converts here) this site gets revenue, and the knuckledraggers get a lighter wallet. It’s a win win!

    • Thanks for the note on the ads, but I’ll need a link in order to get them blocked. If you see them again, please email me the link at

      • Otis11

        I like Bronque’s idea…

        But probably better to block them as new-comers and people on the fence may be misled…

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