Published on March 4th, 2014 | by James Ayre


Low-Cost Methanol From Carbon Dioxide — Relatively Cheap Conversion Method Developed

March 4th, 2014 by  

A relatively low-cost means of converting carbon dioxide into methanol has been developed by researchers from Stanford University, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the Technical University of Denmark.

Methanol is used for a number of different purposes, primarily though, as a fuel, in the production of many important adhesives and solvents, and in the production of plastics. It’s been suggested by researchers in some fields that methanol could be used as a replacement for gasoline (at least partially) — despite its corrosivity — with only minimal adjustments to vehicle design.

Artist's rendering of the nickel-gallium active site, which synthesizes hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methanol. Nickel atoms are light grey, gallium atoms are dark grey, and oxygen atoms are red. Image Credit: Jens Hummelshoj/SLAC

The new low-cost conversion method is all down to the discovery of a new nickel-gallium catalyst — one that converts hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methanol with fewer side-products than the conventional catalysts.

“Methanol is processed in huge factories at very high pressures using hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide from natural gas,” stated study lead author Felix Studt, a staff scientist at SLAC. “We are looking for materials than can make methanol from clean sources under low-pressure conditions, while generating low amounts of carbon monoxide.”

Ultimately, according to Studt, the goal is a process that can be scaled up to the industrial level while remaining “nonpolluting and carbon neutral”.

“Imagine if you could synthesize methanol using hydrogen from renewable sources, such as water split by sunlight, and carbon dioxide captured from power plants and other industrial smokestacks,” explained co-author Jens Nørskov, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. “Eventually we would also like to make higher alcohols, such as ethanol and propanol, which, unlike methanol, can be directly added to gasoline today.”

Stanford University provides more:

Worldwide, about 65 million metric tons of methanol are produced each year for use in the manufacture of paints, polymers, glues and other products. In a typical methanol plant, natural gas and water are converted to synthesis gas (“syngas”), which consists of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The syngas is then converted into methanol in a high-pressure process using a catalyst made of copper, zinc and aluminum.

Once Studt and his colleagues understood methanol synthesis at the molecular level, they began the hunt for a new catalyst capable of synthesizing methanol at low pressures using only hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Instead of testing a variety of compounds in the lab, Studt searched for promising catalysts in a massive computerized database that he and co-author Frank Abild-Pedersen developed at SLAC. Comparing the copper-zinc-aluminum catalyst with thousands of other materials in the database, the most promising candidate turned out to be a little-known compound called nickel-gallium.

“Once we got the name of the compound out of the computer, someone still had to test it,” Nørskov stared. “We don’t do lab experiments here, so we have to have a good experimental partner.”

That’s where the research group at the Technical University of Denmark came in — synthesizing and testing the nickel-gallium catalyst. The tests confirmed what had been predicted — “at high temperatures, nickel-gallium produced more methanol than the conventional copper-zinc-aluminum catalyst, and considerably less of the carbon monoxide byproduct.”

“You want to make methanol, not carbon monoxide,” Chorkendorff said. “You also want a catalyst that’s stable and doesn’t decompose. The lab tests showed that nickel-gallium is, in fact, a very stable solid.”

The researchers are now working to fine-tune their new catalyst.

The new findings were just published in the journal Nature Chemistry.

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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+.

  • Peter Gray

    A more efficient or cleaner industrial process is always welcome, but I’m not sure why this one belongs on a site mainly dealing with renewable energy. I wish the writer had at least mentioned how much energy the process consumes, so as not to contribute to readers believing that this methanol could serve as a “new source of energy.” It cannot. Ever. It will always take more energy to convert CO2 back to a fuel than was extracted from the original coal or hydrocarbon – for a transportation fuel, at least 3 times more.
    It seems kind of plausible that methanol made this way might serve as an energy storage medium for wind or solar, but at a huge loss if the methanol is burned as a thermal-to-work fuel. Direct methanol fuel cells would be nice, but so far their efficiency is no better than that of an internal combustion engine.

    • Rick Kargaard

      Methanol is widely used for other things beside fuel. It is the main constituent in windsheil washer fluid (cold weather type). It is also used extensively in the oil and gas industry to prevent or thaw freezeups. Any cleaner method of producing it should be appreciated.

    • Thomas

      Taking CO2 out of the flue gasses from power production is not without costs. In conventional CO2-production the CO2 is freezed out which will cool down the flue gasses to much. The production of power will go down making the cost of production methanol go up

  • TCFlood

    Reduction of CO2 under virtually all circumstances is a thermodynamically wasteful process — you can always use the reducing agent more directly with less energy waste. In the case of the methanol production described above, the hydrogen can be used directly to much greater advantage as a fuel for ships, planes, and turbines to produce electricity for the electric light vehicle fleet. Overcapacity of wind farms, for example, could be used to electrolytically produce hydrogen to be used to generate electricity to offset wind intermittency. Onsite use of hydrogen on an industrial scale is routine and has none of the problems of widespread distribution and portability of hydrogen for light vehicle fuel.

  • Steve Baker

    If it can take the CO2 out of coal, thats a great incentive alone, if the byproduct can be sold priceless.

    • Bob_Wallace

      It’s not a good idea. The carbon that was buried beneath the Earth’s surface would still be extracted and pumped into the atmosphere as CO2.

      There’s some benefit to the extent that it could lower petroleum use, but overall it’s a negative. We need to find solutions that let sleeping carbons lie.

      • Matthew Schilling

        The biosphere is starved of atmospheric CO2. CO2 is a wholly benign trace gas that is absolutely essential to life on Earth. We have gone way beyond irony into travesty that people who consider themselves ‘green’ are CO2-phobic.

      • Chris

        I think what Steve is saying is that it will take the by-product of coal(CO2 ) and convert it to Methanol

        • Bob_Wallace

          The carbon still ends up in the atmosphere.

          It would create one more argument for continuing to burn coal.

    • Peter Gray

      I agree with Bob, though it’s questionable whether this pathway could even reduce oil consumption, not to mention net carbon.

      With a lot of the gee-whiz articles on this site, I’m reminded of a saying from the 1970s about how to understand corruption in politics: “Follow the money.”

      When you see too-good-to-be-true claims for new tech, esp. something along the lines of magically converting CO2 and H2O into gasoline, your first step should be “Follow the energy.”

  • Rick Kargaard

    Methanol is a clear liquid that will mix with water. It burns with a flame that is invisible in daylight. This makes it a little dangerous to use as a fuel for transportation.

    • Peter Gray

      I’d say methanol’s high toxicity and corrosivity will be much bigger obstacles than its invisible flame. Haven’t we been around the methanol-as-fuel block a couple times before? It didn’t seem to pass the reality test…

      • Rick Kargaard

        Gasoline and diesel are also toxic. Methanol alone is not that corrosive but any water in it acts as an oxidant. However, this method may ge greener than current methods of manufacturing methanol.

        • Peter Gray

          Well, sure, but so are ethanol and table salt. Even water can be deadly at a high enough dose. From what I can find about LD-50s, methanol is at least 5-10 times more toxic than gasoline, which in turn is many times more toxic than diesel. Nobody even seems to calculate an LD-50 for diesel.

          • Rick Kargaard

            I am not sure what we are arguing about here. I am suggesting that it is not a good fuel for vehicles. How toxic it is is rather irrellevant

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