The Case For Methanol

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In the past few decades, sustainable technologies have multiplied rapidly. The price of solar and wind energy has crashed, leading to a sustainable energy boom. Simultaneously, the public has grown more comfortable with electric vehicles, thanks to increasing range and flashy brands like Tesla showing what EVs are capable of.

It would seem fossils are on their way out, but there are less glamorous aspects of our current fossil-fueled system that these technologies alone cannot replace.

Anyone who’s spent any time in the “right wing” fever swamp will be familiar with the question, “What happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?” It’s a talking point cooked up by the fossil fuel industry, but it does have a kernel of truth to it! The energy produced by most wind and solar installations is intermittent. It’s the first problem with a solar/wind system:

1. Dispatchability

We have to have a way to store the energy produced by renewable sources so that we can use it later when those sources go offline. There are a number of different approaches to this problem, such as pumped hydro storage, an enhanced smart grid, and reused EV batteries. Each poses difficulties in terms of scale, cost, or coverage.

Another difficulty facing a pure wind/solar/EV system is applications where batteries don’t really work and electrical transmission lines are too expensive to run. This is the second problem with such a system:

2. Freight

Batteries in cars work fairly well, because for the most part they are pulling a bunch of air and a few tiny monkey bodies (and maybe a canine body or two). The weight is fairly low. This is not the case for the 18-wheelers that haul our food and consumer goods around. To make such a vehicle function with batteries alone requires a battery so massive that it crowds out half the space used to haul goods. To get around this, it could be possible to electrify the highway systems, and this is indeed being done in Sweden and elsewhere. The problem is that it’s very expensive, and trucks can’t stray far from power lines.

One final thing that fossils give us is something we use every day and usually take for granted. In the immortal words of Mr. McGuire from The Graduate:

3. Plastics

The hydrocarbon chains in crude oil are perfect for creating the plastics that we use every day, in wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, among other places.


What might we be able to use to replace fossil fuels that can be used to make plastics, to generate on-demand electricity, and to power our system of freight transport?

The answer is fairly simple: Use the same chemicals we’re currently using, but source them from a different place.

If we aren’t limiting ourselves to the molecular configuration of fossil deposits, we can specify the attributes we want in a chemical fuel and custom-design a molecule to meet those needs. Those attributes are that it should be a liquid at room temperature, and that it should be low in carbon. With those requirements in mind, it turns out the optimal carbon-based chemical fuel is methanol.

The chemical formula for methanol is CH₃OH. It’s also known as methyl alcohol, wood alcohol, wood naphtha, methyl hydrate, or wood spirits. It’s very similar to methane, and basically only differs in that there’s an extra oxygen thrown in. That oxygen is important, because it causes the fuel to be a liquid instead of a gas at room temperature. That means it doesn’t require expensive infrastructure to compress and contain it.

One of the main champions of methanol is someone named George Olah, and he got a bit of media attention about a decade ago during the tail end of the Bush administration when fuel cells were being pushed for vehicles. He’s no Bill Nye, but he’s right about the benefits of methanol as a fuel!

The volumetric density of methanol is high relative to other low-carbon fuels, so vehicles which run on it can travel extremely long distances, 800 km in one example.

Similar hybrid technology in tractor trailers is projected to reduce fuel requirements by 21% and with methanol as an energy source instead of diesel, would significantly reduce particulate pollution. Diesel is more energy dense, but with increased efficiency, expansion of fuel tank sizes could still be manageable.

It turns out that methanol can also be an important feedstock for plastics, and there are already demonstration projects in operation that use it to do just that.

Perhaps even more attractive is the ability of methanol to act as chemical storage for renewable energy. It’s long term, the potential scale is massive, and it can be stored almost anywhere. Unlike gasoline, it evaporates fairly quickly so it poses less of a danger to water supplies if it were to spill, and best of all, it can be carbon negative.

The raw materials to create methanol are all around us. They are in sewage, in garbage, and in agricultural waste. Almost all of the carbon in these materials comes from the sky. It’s incorporated into the bodies of plants as they grow. Extracting the raw materials to create methanol from biomass is as simple as heating it in the absence of oxygen. When this is done, an additional byproduct is a more stable form of carbon that’s less likely to go back into the sky, as I have noted in another essay.

Using renewable energy to extract H₂ and CO from biomass and to refine these chemicals into methanol would result in a stable, long-term energy storage medium that could be scaled up to meet all of our transportation and energy stability needs, to produce plastics sustainably as well as to reduce the amount of CO₂ in the sky … which sounds pretty good, right?

Now, the bad news: You need a catalyst to create methanol from these primitive components, and it turns out catalysts can be difficult. They oxidise, they rot, they’re expensive and difficult to produce. These obstacles have been surmounted in at least one biomass-to-methanol refinery in Edmonton, Alberta. Copper and zinc seem to be catalysts of choice.

Methanol is also corrosive. Fuel tanks and supply hoses need to be corrosion-resistant to properly contain it.

Even given these drawbacks, methanol is superior to other types of chemical fuel. With additional energy input from solar panels and wind turbines, there’s essentially no limit to how much methanol we could create, no limit to how much energy we could store, and no restrictions on where we could do it. Anywhere there’s trash, there’s a potential.

Images via Wikimedia, Inside Energy, Nikola Motor Company, and MGM.

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