The CO2 Advantage of Methanol

Question: If we had a sizable number of cars on our roads burning methanol rather than gasoline, would it put less CO2 into the atmosphere? If so, how much less? We haven't yet seen any studies that directly answer the question, but we've found enough clues to make the answer quite clear.

Let's start with the creation of the fuel. Refining gasoline produces considerable CO2 emissions. To produce one gallon of gasoline puts 2.45 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. (Source)

Methanol is a little more difficult to determine because there are many ways to create methanol, and each method creates different amounts of CO2. But all the methods produce less CO2 than refining gasoline. Fuel Freedom writes:

"Studies indicate that methanol produced from natural gas is somewhat less greenhouse gas intensive than gasoline produced from conventional oil, and substantially better than high carbon, non-conventional gasoline.

"Oil refining impacts air and water quality, produces toxic solids and sludge, and is the most energy intensive industry in the U.S. On the other hand, methanol produced from natural gas requires only a simple gasification process that avoids the toxic byproducts of oil refining." (Source)

That's methanol from natural gas. In a technical paper entitled, Large Scale Methanol Production from Natural Gas, the authors say it makes the process more productive to add CO2 to the syngas. Most methanol is created by heating up natural gas until the molecules separate, producing "synthesis gas" or "syngas." The authors of the technical paper write: "The addition of CO2 permits optimization of the synthesis gas composition for methanol production. CO2 constitutes a less expensive feedstock, and CO2 emissions to the environment are reduced. The application of CO2 reforming results in a very energy efficient plant. The energy consumption is 5-10% less than that of a conventional plant." (Source)

That was technical jargon, but what they're saying is that you get more methanol from the same amount of natural gas if you add CO2 to it — and it's less expensive to make because CO2 is cheap. It's an industrial waste.

But some new technologies are even better. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Nobel laureate George Olah explains how he and Surya Prakash created a breakthrough that won them a million dollars for their innovations:

"Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol — a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel — can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

"At laboratories such as the University of Southern California's Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and 'sequestering' carbon dioxide...this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships." (Source)

Olah and Prakash are not the only ones working on using CO2 to produce methanol. In Iceland, the company Carbon Recycling International captures CO2 produced by industrial processes and makes renewable methanol using geothermal energy. Their CEO, K.C. Tran, says, "We often describe our technology as liquid electricity because we store the electricity in the form of liquid, for consumption in today's internal combustion engine based cars. It is similar to storing electricity in a battery. We capture CO2 and turn it into renewable methanol for gasoline blending in the US and EU." (Source)

Describing the Icelandic company's commercial scale plant, Wikipedia says, "Initially the major source will be the CO2 rich flue gases of fossil-fuel-burning power plants or exhaust from cement and other factories. In the longer range however, considering diminishing fossil fuel resources and the effect of their utilization on earth's atmosphere, even the low concentration of atmospheric CO2 itself could be captured and recycled via methanol, thus supplementing nature’s own photosynthetic cycle. Efficient new absorbents to capture atmospheric CO2 are being developed, mimicking plants' ability." So methanol could be made directly from CO2 in the air.

"Methanol may be viewed as a compact way of storing hydrogen," says Wikipedia. "Methanol has a high octane rating, making it a suitable gasoline substitute. It has a higher flame speed than gasoline, leading to higher efficiency..." (Source)

A method for creating methanol using CO2 and sunlight, developed at the University of Texas at Arlington, uses very little electrical power and can be "scaled up to an industrial scale to allow some of the CO2 emitted from electrical power plants to be captured and converted into" methanol. This would make electric cars even greener because the CO2 generated for electricity is captured and used. (Source)

Researchers are innovating other ways to convert CO2 into methanol using very little energy. A team led by Professor Frédéric-Georges Fontaine at Université Laval has accomplished a very efficient method. As Science Daily puts it, "the results have been spectacular." They're now working on ways to make it profitable. (Source)

In an article in Forbes, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, Carlo Rubbia, says natural gas has the most promise as an abundant, clean fuel that can help reduce global warming. He said one of our most important goals should be to convert the transportation sector from gasoline to methanol. "Natural gas can be integrated into human society more quickly and easily than nuclear, solar or wind," Rubbia said, "and because of global warming, speed is of the essence."

"For transportation, he suggests producing methanol liquid by recombining hydrogen with CO2 that has been removed from the atmosphere. Cars burning methanol would still produce CO2 emissions, but as long as the fuel is made with captured CO2 they would not increase existing CO2 levels.

"Because methanol can be handled like ethanol or gasoline is now, society could avoid several of the obstacles it would face if it tried to convert transportation to hydrogen, including the need for new storage and transportation infrastructure and the need to switch from internal combustion engines to electricity-producing fuel cells." (Source)

Another important consideration about the CO2 impact of methanol made from natural gas is that flaring natural gas (burning it just to get rid of it) now produces a huge amount of CO2 without any benefit whatsoever only because methanol is not allowed to compete with gasoline at the pump. If that natural gas was converted to methanol and burned as a fuel instead of flaring it, the methanol could displace billions of gallons of a much more polluting fuel (gasoline) that is now being burned for transportation. The methanol which is being flared would be used instead to propel cars down the road and billions of gallons of gasoline now being burned for transportation fuel would not have to be burned, considerably reducing total CO2 emissions. 

A report by GE stated: "Gas flaring [in America] emits 400 million metric tons of CO2 annually, the same as 77 million automobiles, without producing useful heat or electricity. Worldwide, billions of cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas are wasted annually, typically as a by-product of oil extraction." (Source)

A report by Ceres says, "At current market rates, oil is approximately 30 times more valuable than natural gas. As a result, producers have chosen to flare much of the gas they produce, rather than invest in the infrastructure necessary to collect, process and market it...

"The practice of natural gas flaring has generated significant public attention after recent NASA satellite images revealed that North Dakota’s gas flares can be seen from space, burning nearly as brightly as the city lights of Minneapolis and Chicago." (Source)

In a New York Times article by Clifford Krauss, he writes, "With cheap (natural) gas bubbling to the top with expensive oil, the companies do not have an economic incentive to build the necessary gas pipelines, so they flare the excess gas instead.

"Flaring is environmentally less harmful than releasing raw natural gas into the atmosphere, but the flared gas still spews climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere." (Source)

Reuters reports: "The World Bank estimates that the flaring of gas adds some 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in annual emissions, almost the same as France puts into the atmosphere each year or the equivalent to the yearly emissions from around 70 million cars." (Source)

With the passing of the Open Fuel Standard, we would soon have a large percentage of cars on the road capable of burning ethanol and methanol as well as gasoline, and there would be a profit-incentive for waste-into-fuel plants to spring up in every town and city, further cutting the greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than municipal waste being dumped into a landfill where it leaks tremendous amounts of methane into the atmosphere — a greenhouse gas far worse than CO2most of the waste could be turned into fuel, as one facility is now doing in Vero Beach, Florida. And turning the trash into fuel reduces the bulk going into landfills by 90%. (Source)

The production of methanol is one factor in its CO2 emissions, and it easily wins that competition with gasoline because methanol production creates substantially less CO2 than refining oil into gasoline. The other factor, of course, is burning the fuel in vehicles. This is a more straightforward thing to measure. Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Energy and an accomplished engineer, discovered during his methanol experiment that methanol produces less CO2 when burned than gasoline. "Carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 35 percent," he writes. In a recent paper of his, he graphs the results of testing M100 (pure methanol), M60 (sixty percent methanol, forty percent gasoline), and E10 (normal gasoline, containing ten percent ethanol). Here are the results:

Read more about it here. So using methanol for fuel instead of gasoline would lower CO2 emissions from vehicles by 35%. Methanol is a high-octane, clean-burning fuel and gasoline should have to compete with it in a free market. This could happen quickly. It was not difficult for Zubrin to adjust his regular gasoline-only car to be able to burn methanol. The only part he had to replace was a fuel pump seal that cost him 41 cents. Methanol could very well be the silver bullet everyone has been searching for. At the very least, it could cut CO2 emissions from our existing cars immediately while new technologies like electric cars have a chance to gain a larger share of the market. A few relevant points about methanol from Wikipedia:

"Methanol is in fact toxic and eventually lethal when ingested in larger amounts. But so are most motor fuels, including gasoline and diesel fuel. Gasoline also contains many compounds known to be carcinogenic (e.g. benzene). Methanol is not a carcinogen, nor does it contain any carcinogens.

"Compared to gasoline, however, methanol is much safer. It is more difficult to ignite and releases less heat when it burns. Methanol fires can be extinguished with plain water, whereas gasoline floats on water and continues to burn. The EPA has estimated that switching fuels from gasoline to methanol would reduce the incidence of fuel related fires by 90%.

"An accidental release of methanol in the environment would cause much less damage than a comparable gasoline or crude oil spill. Unlike these fuels, methanol, being totally soluble in water, would be rapidly diluted to a concentration low enough for microorganisms to start biodegradation. Methanol is in fact used for denitrification in water treatment plant as a nutrient for bacteria." (Source)

Fuel Freedom has this to say about the possibility of methanol as a transportation fuel:

"Development of methanol as a fuel source has suffered from a lack of physical and legal infrastructure. Steps that could make methanol more viable as an alternative fuel include:

1. Passage of the Open Fuel Standard that would mandate that new cars sold in the U.S. support multiple fuels, not just gasoline;
2. Government protocols for the conversion of existing cars to flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on high concentrations of methanol and the installation of flex-fuel pumps at gas stations so consumers can choose between competing fuels and blends;
3. Construction and streamlined permitting for new plants, initially to convert natural gas and coal to methanol, and later to convert more sustainable feed stocks such as biomass. Because methanol is so easily produced, facilities could be small and decentralized, located near to gasoline stations." (Source)

Adam Khan is the co-author with Klassy Evans of Fill Your Tank With Freedom and the author of Slotralogy and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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