Methanol is making its mark

Methanol’s role in a low carbon economy has been downplayed in Europe and the US. But not in China where it is already an important fuel. Now Europe is catching up, at least in the shipping sector. Maersk has just announced the retrofit of an existing ship to a dual-fuel methanol powered vessel. Methanol is now available at more than 125 of the world’s largest ports, with Rotterdam a pioneer. Will the West now realise methanol’s wider potential? 

As a simple, carbon containing molecule, that can be made from a range of feedstocks including carbon dioxide (plus electricity /hydrogen), which is liquid at room temperature, biodegradable and clean burning, it has a lot of advantages. The ‘methanol economy’ was promoted as an academic idea in Europe in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t taken up by policy makers. The time is right to look at it again.

In 2017, I contrasted Europe’s negative position on methanol with that of the Chinese who were filling their cars with high methanol blends. Chinese companies have not been standing still since then. Geely has just announced further investment in methanol fuelled hybrid vehicles. It offers around twenty methanol models, including both passenger and commercial vehicles. In 2016, the company invested in Carbon Recycling International (CRI) which has demonstrated the commercial production of e-methanol from renewable electricity and carbon dioxide in Iceland. And last year the first plant was commissioned in China.

Europe has a lot of ground to make up. On the positive side, methanol road transport fuel may have recently received a boost with the newly granted exemption to e-fuel cars from the EU’s future ban on internal combustion engines. E-methanol is currently the only e-fuel that is produced commercially. 

Of course, methanol is a widely produced commodity chemical. It is a precursor to a range of other chemicals and polymers that contain oxygen such as acetic acid and vinyl acetate which goes into adhesives and paints. Conventional methanol is made mainly from oil and gas, the raw materials for most of the chemicals and plastics that we use every day. So, can renewable or e-methanol become the platform molecule of the chemicals and polymers industry as the world moves away from oil and gas? It has not yet achieved the ‘building block’ status of ethylene or propylene, the main components of most polymers and plastics. But technology to convert methanol to these molecules is commercially available. The MTO (methanol to olefins) technology is in operation where naphtha or gas is not available.

Scaling up the production of e-methanol will favour locations where renewable electricity is cheap and there are concentrated sources of waste carbon dioxide. Regions such as Europe where renewable electricity is, and is likely to stay, expensive, will have to focus on other raw materials. And that is one of the advantages of methanol, it can be made from a range of carbon containing materials. So, Europe could concentrate on waste biomass and end-of-life plastic as sustainable feedstocks for low carbon methanol. There are commercial plants planned in the Netherlands, Spain and Italy to convert non-recyclable municipal waste to methanol. These will need ongoing investment to optimise the process and make them a success. The European Commission will also need to provide some incentives to allow these fuels to compete with conventional ones.

China has also developed methanol boilers and cooking appliances. Without much oil and gas, China has historically relied on coal for its energy, suffering from terrible air pollution and high greenhouse gas emissions as a result. The country has devoted resources to commercialising cleaner sources of energy. In the case of methanol, the West should imitate their approach. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius said: ‘By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Published: 28 June 23

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