There’s so much talk about moving toward a hydrogen economy, the presumed future of transportation being the hydrogen fuel cell, it’s easy to overlook some of the other very real possibilities. Methanol, another form of alcohol, looks very promising.
A new book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, highlights the advantages and benefits of methanol. A lot of you already know that methanol can be used directly in internal combustion engines, the alcohol classes at the drag strip run on methanol and various other road racing machines use it, too. You can also mix it with gasoline, instead of ethanol (M85 instead of E85?), which is the alcohol getting all of the press these days. Methanol can also be used in methanol fuel cells to produce electricity, instead of using hydrogen.
This book, written by the co-inventors of the methanol fuel cell, point out some things you probably didn’t know, at least I didn’t. Methanol can be produced from natural gas which is the common method of producing it today. Natural gas is still pretty plentiful but there’s an even better way to produce it. The methanol fuel cell takes methanol and produces electricity with water and CO2 as byproducts. What’s neat is that you can reverse that process and take water and CO2 and with a bit of electricity, produce methanol.
Methanol, like ethanol, is a liquid that can be stored and transported very easily, unlike hydrogen, so it has a big advantage right there. But look again at the reverse process used to produce it, water and CO2 are the ingredients. What is a big problem today with many combustion processes? They produce CO2 which now has to be sequestered underground so it isn’t released into the atmosphere. Suppose you capture the CO2 in the flue gasses of a powerplant and make methanol, you take the waste gas and create energy. As the authors note, as the technology advances, we’ll be able to take CO2 out of the air without using high concentration sources like flue gas. The end result is creating a liquid energy carrier and getting rid of a greenhouse gas at the same time. Sounds like a winner. This might be worth a closer look.