Methanol as a Cleaner Cheaper Fuel Source?


Research scientists have found a very easy and cleaner way to turn carbon dioxide into methanol and it is cheap too. Could we be on the threshold of a cheaper fuel source?

A news release from Stanford University says that a team of international researchers may have found a new way to produce the alternative fuel source. By combining theory and experimentation researchers from Stanford and Denmark have discovered a catalyst made from nickel-gallium that converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methanol with fewer side-products than normal.

Methanol is typically made in large factories at extreme pressures using carbon dioxide, hydrogen and carbon monoxide from natural gas. The lead study author, Felix Studt said they were looking for materials that could produce methanol from cleaner sources under lower pressurized conditions and lower amounts of carbon monoxide.

The teams long-term goal is to be able to produce a cleaner, cheaper and nonpolluting methanol on a grand scale. Co-author, Jens Norskov, said to try to imagine if methanol could be synthesized using hydrogen from renewable sources like water split by sunlight and if carbon dioxide could be captured from industrial smokestacks. Norskov went on to say they hope to be able to produce higher alcohols, like propanol and ethanol that can be added directly to today’s gasoline unlike methanol.

Methanol is the prime ingredient that is used in plastic products and in adhesives. However, with this new study, methanol could be the fuel of the future. Currently, about 65 million metric tons of methanol is produced world-wide. The process begins with natural gas mixed with water that is then converted into synthesis gas. Next, the synthesis gas is put through a high-pressure process that produces methanol. In this process the catalysts used are copper, zinc and aluminum.

Studt and his team were able to find out how the process of methanol synthesis works and studied the industrial process for three years. They then started the task of finding a low-pressure catalyst way to produce it. The new way they discovered is called “computational materials design” and the discovering researchers are hopeful although they realize more work is needed.

The team tested thousands of materials to find the right catalyst and the one that seemed to show the most promise was a relatively unknown compound, nickel-gallium. Norkov said once they got the name out of the computer database they still had to find someone to test it. That’s where the team from Denmark comes in. They performed the task of synthesizing nickel and gallium to make the solid catalyst. After that task was completed, the Danish scientists did a series of tests to find out if the nickel-gallium catalyst could produce methanol in a low-pressure environment.

The Danish tests proved that the computer had selected the correct catalyst. At high temperatures the catalyst did produce more methanol than the high-pressure method and much less carbon monoxide.

These results do show some promise, however, the research team admits there is still a lot of work ahead. The team would like to push it further and attempt to find a way to make the catalyst a little more cleaner than it is. Ib Chorkendorff, one of the Danish researchers, says that the process contains very little nanoparticles of pure nickel because it does not do the best job at synthesizing methanol. He also said that it produces all kinds of chemical byproducts that are unwanted.

We may be finally on the verge of finding a cheaper and best of all cleaner fuel source with methanol, however, until scientists can work out the details and flaws of the catalyst, we will still be dependent on good old oil.

By Adam Stier

Stanford News
The Almagest
Christian Science Monitor 

One Response to "Methanol as a Cleaner Cheaper Fuel Source?"

  1. wfhn   March 3, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Methanol as fuel is problematic in that a byproduct of incomplete combustion is formaldehyde, which might be carcinogenic.


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