The Rise of the Methanol Economy

The late Professor George Olah put a name to a novel concept when he launched his book “Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy” in 2006. Coming from a Nobel Laureate in the field of chemistry the book attracted lots of attention.

Professor Olah’s book describes a future where fossil fuels, in their many uses, are replaced with methanol. As the professor points out, methanol is an extremely effective fuel, we have examples of this dating back to the 1940s, and it’s still a popular additive for use in gasoline.

Methanol has already replaced the role of hydrocarbons sourced from oil in the production of a wide range of products through the production of plastics and synthetic rubber from olefins. The production of this product category is one of the largest uses for methanol today.

For now, most methanol is made from non-renewable sources, but it can just as easily be created with renewable energy through methanol synthesis. This process is already proven, with several methanol synthesis plants already operating. The synthesis plants use electricity to capture CO2 emissions and transform it into methanol. If the electricity used is sourced from renewable energy the methanol produced will effectively reduce carbon emissions.

In fact, as the technology evolves and CO2 can be extracted directly from the air the methanol economy could become completely sustainable and imitate the natural cycle of CO2 usage that exists in nature.

Professor Olah was a realist who understood that change is a process. He reiterated that the methanol economy can, and indeed must, be introduced in a flexible and gradual manner that works with existing practices and infrastructures. Current practices show that methanol is well suited for a gradual implementation within the existing fuel and energy infrastructure.

Methanol can be produced from both renewable and non-renewable sources. This makes methanol potentially easily available in virtually any location, which is an important point for a universal fuel. It can, and is now commonly used as an additive to current fuels. This means that a gradual realization of some of the important benefits of methanol are available also in the short term. Methanol is relatively stable and is easy to store and distribute through existing channels of distribution.

Methanol has the potential to help us control CO2 emissions which most of us agree is important for the survival of our planet. There are also a number of important short term benefits from using methanol as a fuel. Emissions from burning methanol are simply water and CO2, which can help substantially improve quality of life in inner city neighbourhoods currently suffering from emissions from cars and heating.

As doctor Olah has pointed out there is much to be done, and it is impossible to do all at once. Silent-Power AG, a sister company of Silent has been getting engaged in the rapidly developing, and increasingly financially attractive, methanol economy. The company has identified the need for methanol demand generation as a key to achieving the methanol economy. Higher demand drives supply, which again leads to wider availability and adoption. The company has therefore invented the Econimo. This is a decentralized network of mini power plants powered by methanol. The Power plants are operating at roughly 85% efficiency, and avoid transmission losses. The power plants capture the heat from the electricity production to be used for heating, water heating or cooling.