Beyond Oil and Gas: The ‘Methanol Economy’
By Bill Moore
I was sitting in the beautiful Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California, having dinner with some executives from Toyota and Lexus. The occasion was the 2006 Toyota Hybrid Seminar this past April. Seated across from me was long-time acquaintance Dave Hermance from Toyota's Technical Center. I had just been reading Dr. George Olah's new book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy.
I asked Dave what he thought of the idea of using methanol as a future transportation fuel, instead of trying to solve all the riddles of using hydrogen. He at first expressed surprise and then dismissed at the idea, basically saying Toyota had looked at it already and had been under whelmed by it as an alternative fuel. Besides, it's a poison and it's bad for the environment, he contended.
These were all objections I'd heard before at previous conferences when methanol was suggested as an alternative to hydrogen. Although it is rich in hydrogen atoms and can be used without reformation in Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFCs), it's been portrayed as an environmental disaster, which is exactly opposite to what Dr. Olah was contending in his book.
So, when I got to interview Dr. Olah a couple weeks ago, I made sure I asked him about these issues. He was candid and forthright in his replies, but before I tell you what he said, let me set the stage first.
I first learned of Dr. Olah's book from my colleague, Gal Luft at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. Gad had sent me an email via Blackberry suggesting I get a copy of the book and that I talk to Dr. Olah. I wrote the good Doctor and he generously sent me a review copy, which I immediately dove into the day I got, first searching the index to find out what he said about methanol's various environmental issues. What I found surprised me. Here's a respected, Nobel chemist, who sees no serious environmental issues with this substance (more later).
Next, I wanted to better understand why he sees the methanol economy as better than the proposed "hydrogen" economy. Most intriguing, I wanted to learn more about how he proposed using hydrogen, carbon dioxide and electricity to produce methanol, DME and a whole family of non-petroleum-based chemical feedstock for the future manufacture of plastics and polymers.
An Inconvenient Economy
Okay, now that I've set the stage, let's get into the interview -- you'll have to order and read the book to get into many of the finer details of his thesis.
I began by asked Dr. Olah what are his objections to the notion of a "hydrogen economy".
"I want to be very precise on this," he said in a lingering accent from his Hungarian heritage, "I am not in the habit to criticizing other things just in the negative. So, I can tell you why I think that what's called the "hydrogen economy" has serious limitations.
"Now hydrogen, as your readers probably know, is the lightest element. Therefore, hydrogen is not available, as such, in its free form on planet Earth. We must liberate hydrogen from its compound. The reason for this is hydrogen has a very high affinity for other elements; for example, oxygen or carbon. Therefore on earth there is large amount of hydrogen, but it's present in its bound form."
He sited the best known example: water or H2O, two hydrogen atoms bound to a single oxygen atom. It's also bound to carbon, making hydrocarbons; the simplicist being methane or CH4.
For Olah, the first obstacle to a hydrogen economy is the "very significant input of energy" needed to "liberate" the hydrogen from water or hydrocarbons like methane (natural gas). The next challenge is storing it.
"Hydrogen is basically a way to store energy." He then pointed out that because it is such a volatile gas, it's not easy to store, and when you do, it must be done either under high pressure or extremely low temperature (-253 degrees C). This presents an enormous difficulty. There is no infrastructure for it. And even if such an infrastructure could be developed for an investment of astronomical sums of money, the high volatility makes it exceedingly difficult to handle. It also has a great love affair for oxygen; and therefore, if it gets in contact with air, it can be explosive.
"These two factors, and a third -- in my mind -- make the wide use of hydrogen very difficult, very expensive and hazardous. Having said this, I am not saying that at some static installation, under great care, it couldn't be done."
Dr. Olah pointed out that the space industry has been using huge amounts of liquid hydrogen for its rockets and satellites.
"But, in day-to-day use, including what's promoted as the hydrogen highway -- gasoline filling stations replaced by hydrogen filling stations -- would be exceedingly expensive and difficult and in my mind, not feasible."
That's pretty categorical, so what about his own proposal for a "methanol economy"? Just how feasible is it?
Towards a Renewable Fuel Economy
First he wanted me to understand that he's optimistic that mankind will find ways to generate energy in the future. He favors nuclear energy, assuming it can be made safe and the radioactive waste problem solved. He likes renewable forms of energy.
"But once you have energy, you still must store it, transport it and use it. And instead of hydrogen, I am suggesting the very reasonable, feasible, and I would say a general use-approach [is to] convert hydrogen with carbon dioxide, which as you know is damned as a greenhouse gas…"
Olah's idea is to use the very gas that is helping drive accelerated climate change to make a renewable liquid fuel that can be used in both internal combustion engines (di methyl ether or DME can also be used in diesel engines with little modification) and in DMFCs.
He is concerned about the current focus on carbon capture and sequestration, especially in view of the catastrophic consequences of the eruption of carbon dioxide from a pair of lakes in West Africa that smothered thousands of people and their livestock in their sleep.
"My approach is very different. I am saying that carbon dioxide, CO2, can be readily converted with hydrogen to methanol; a safe, convenient liquid, which can be easily stored [and] transported. On top of this, it is not only a good fuel, but it's a very convenient starting material to make all the materials we presently make out of oil and gas, or coal.
"Therefore, it would give mankind an inexhaustible, renewable carbon source to produce all that we are used to, from plastics to pharmaceuticals… Plus, continue to use convenient liquid, which can be very easily transported and dispensed.
Olah explained that most methanol today comes from natural gas; previous to that it was made largely from coal. By incompletely combusting either methane or coal, you get a hydrogen and carbon monoxide compound called syn-gas that when reacted in a Fischer Tropisch process, creates liquid methanol.
He noted that in 2004, the world produced 32 million metric tons of methanol: the bulk of it used to produce formaldehyde-based products and resins, as well as the controversial fuel additive, MTBE.
Instead of using a limited resource like natural gas or an environmentally-destructive source like coal, Olah would instead make methanol from carbon dioxide that is collected from industrial flue gases like that of power plants or cement factories, along with water -- the hydrogen source -- using a process he has patented.
"I don't know whether your readers are familiar with the enormous amount of carbon dioxide we are letting -- we, I mean humanity -- is letting up into the atmosphere; the amounts are mind-boggling. China alone …[in 2004] was burning 9 billion metric tons of coal. And all the coal when you burn it gives carbon dioxide. So we are putting up into the atmosphere billions and billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. It can't go on."
He said that while the nations of the world -- most of them -- agreed in Kyoto to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, "no technological solution was proposed besides collecting it and sequestering it."
Methanol Cocktails Not Advisable
But if methanol is such an attractive motor fuel -- as well as precursor to a host of other useful polymers -- why the negative opinions about it such as demonstrated by Toyota's Hermance?
"I can give you my reasonable answer," he replied, adding that he is often asked this question. "First of all, you shouldn't drink methanol. Methanol is harmful if you drink it or consume it. On the other hand, I haven't seen in my life anybody pulling up to a gasoline station for a pint of high octane gasoline or diesel fuel and drink it.
"Methanol is a liquid. It boils around 56 degrees Centigrade. It's miscible in any amount safely with gasoline. It was used as a gasoline mixing component in the United States and Europe for years. It faded away because oil was still cheap and even today it's relatively cheap.
"The other question about methanol's safety is that when you incompletely burn methanol, you can also form some formaldehyde. But look, we have developed catalytic converters for our cars… that allow gasoline and diesel to burn more completely. There is no difficulty, whatsoever in modern cars to burn methanol without any harmful exhaust."
Olah sees no reason why we couldn't be using a blend of methanol with gasoline, just as we are starting to do increasingly with ethanol.
On the subject of "agricultural" ethanol, he also has an opinion that isn't entirely favorable. He asked me who was the first political figure to endorse the idea of using agricultural produce to make ethanol fuel?
Any guesses? And it wasn't Henry Ford -- that was my guess. Turns out it was Vladimir Lenin.
"After the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin and his comrades started to work on new economic approaches; and one of the agricultural approaches was they wanted to use the large amount of agricultural alcohol, which in Russia is called vodka, instead of being drunk by the people, to use for industrial purposes including fuel. To my knowledge this was the only item, which generated in Lenin's lifetime, so much opposition that he withdrew it."
What About Methanol's Lower Energy Content?
Methanol has about half the energy content, measured in BTUs, of gasoline, so I asked him about this issue, since switching to methanol as an automotive fuel would mean you'd have to ultimately burn about twice as much fuel to go the same distance.
"You are right. The energy content of methanol is lower than the energy content of pure hydrocarbon, such as gasoline. On the other hand, you can use methanol very efficiently to overcome this difficulty."
How would he do that? He, along with friends and colleagues at CalTech and JPL developed the direct methanol fuel cell. He talks more about this effort in Part Two of our discussion.
To Be Continued in Part Two