Biomethanol v bioethanol for 2nd generation biofuels

“The person who says something is impossible should not interrupt the person who is doing it”

A recently published study on growing methanol use in China highlights the truth of this Chinese proverb. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) commissioned a study from Argus Media group  to understand better China’s consumption of methanol and its derivatives. This showed that China’s consumption of methanol in fuel products has risen to more than 500,000 barrels per day in 2016. Blends of 5% up to 100% pure methanol are approved in different regions. The EIA goes on to say that ‘Similar to how ethanol is currently blended into motor gasoline in the United States, methanol is blended into gasoline in China’.

In Europe and the US, car manufacturers and fuel refiners say that methanol/gasoline blends are unsuitable for current vehicles and distribution infrastructure. This thinking has informed the debate on biofuels. We hear that the future for road transport is bioethanol/gasoline blends. Biodiesel demand will decrease, as polluting diesel is banned from cities. Electric vehicles will need supplementary gasoline for the many years it will take for battery technology and charging infrastructure to make the necessary advances.

The Chinese, however, are filling their cars with these very methanol blends that western industries say are unsuitable for distribution and use.  The methanol is made from oil or coal, but the same technology can also produce biomethanol. Methanol is commonly made from syngas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen), which can be produced from biomass, municipal waste and biogas, as well as oil, coal and natural gas. The co-processing of bio and fossil syngas to methanol would also reduce capital investment. 

Enerkem is already producing methanol from municipal waste via syngas . Renewable methanol can also be produced from carbon dioxide, using renewable electricity . Companies are supplying biomethanol made from biogas in Europe.     But apart from these examples, most of the focus so far has been on bioethanol. However, whereas 1st genertion bioethanol is easy to produce from crops, 2nd generation or advanced bioethanol from waste is difficult and costly. A number of producers have fallen by the wayside as high capital costs and technical difficulties have beset the second-generation bioethanol industry. Now is the time to re-examine the potential for biomethanol.

Perhaps we should follow the example of the Chinese and check again whether voices that say biomethanol blends are impossible are actually preventing us from doing it.

Published: 14 March 17

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