Methanol as a “Future-Proof” Fuel

04.01.20 | Blog | By:

Last year, I did a series for Future Fuel Outlook members on the future of diesel in the EU, qualitatively reviewing a range of fuels including: HVO, biodiesel, electrofuels, electricity for EVs, hydrogen, biomethane, other drop-in advanced alternative fuels, CNG, LPG and LNG. Key questions I asked and reviewed in each report included:

  • Current Status: What is the current status of these fuels? For those fuels already in the market, what is the current situation? For fuels that are being developed, what is the status and outlook?
  • Real Substitution: What is the ultimate potential in the long-term (2030, 2050) for the fuel to really make a significant dent in conventional diesel demand? To the extent discoverable, what do those volumes look like?
  • Carbon Intensity: What is the carbon intensity (CI) of the fuel? What is the government-industry-academia consensus, if any?
  • Air Pollution: What are these fuels potential to reduce air pollutants such as NOx and PM?
  • Costs: What are the costs, as applicable, to bring these fuels to market?
  • Infrastructure: What kinds of infrastructure will be required, as applicable?
  • Challenges: What kinds of challenges or barriers do these fuels have to overcome?
  • Winners: Which fuels come out on top and why?

I dug into it all for members, producing 10 in-depth research reports and posts and then wrapping up with a webinar discussion to highlight key findings and conclusions for each fuel, a qualitative rating of the fuels and overall conclusions from the work. An overall conclusion from the work is that conventional fuels are not disappearing anytime soon in the EU (or in other countries, including the U.S.). However, alternatives are continuing to grow, and not just electrification. HVO, advanced alternative drop-in fuels, biomethane, hydrogen and methanol are in the immediate mix, followed by electrofuels. EU government and industry appear to be pursuing the “all out, all of the above” strategy, once touted by U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as a major energy strategy, in various projects and consortiums.

Future Fuels Must Tick These Boxes

The fuels that scored the highest in my ranking not only eliminated air pollution and GHG emissions, but they are or could be made fossil-free and even carbon net negative. They can be used beyond the LDV or HDV sectors, or even beyond the transport sector, and thus are versatile. They tend to be drop-in fuels that can be “built into” the existing infrastructure and into existing fleets. They are either commercially available now or they will be within the next 5-7 years. Those fuels included HVO, advanced alternative drop-in fuels and low carbon and renewable methanol.

Recently, I wrote a primer for the Methanol Institute entitled, Methanol: A Future-Proof Fuel. Polygeneration, the ability to scale efficiently and cost-effectively, its versatility in so many products and applications including transportation fuels, its biodegradability and its history of safe production, use and handling is what makes methanol a future-proof fuel. Methanol when produced from renewable biomass feedstocks, ticks these boxes. As low carbon and renewable methanol continues to scale up, GHGs will be reduced by up to 95% and can be used in different applications in different transport sectors. The other factor that makes methanol interesting to me is that it enhances new technologies that are likely to be part of this net zero/net negative future such as electrofuels, hydrogen, advanced biofuels and other advanced alternative fuels such as DME and OME. Renewable methanol is interesting to me because not only does it “tick the boxes” it is beginning to scale up.

A Look into Renewable Methanol

Compared to fossil fuels, renewable methanol as an “electrofuel” reduces carbon emissions by 65 to 95% depending on the feedstock and conversion process. That’s one of the highest potential reductions of any fuel currently being developed to displace gasoline, diesel, coal and methane. Renewable methanol can be made from many plentiful sources which are available all over the world.  The necessary carbon molecules to make synthesis gas for methanol production can be obtained from CO2 from industrial process streams, or even captured from the air. Other sources include municipal solid waste (MSW), agricultural waste, forestry residues and renewable hydrogen. These are some of the largest sources but not the only ones. There are several renewable methanol production pathways: electrofuels, biomass and hybrid methanol:

  • Electrofuels: Renewable electricity is used to extract hydrogen from water by electrolysis. Hydrogen is then reacted with CO2 captured from point sources (e.g. industrial process streams) or from the atmosphere.
  • Biomass: Organic matter undergoes fermentation or gasification (subjecting the biomass to high temperature in the absence of air) to produce synthesis gas (syngas) that is processed in a reactor and formed into bio-methanol.
  • Hybrid bio-methanol: Uses a combination of the two production methods, combining biogenic syngas with hydrogen from electrolysis.

These are summarized in the figure below. With respect to transportation fuels, renewable methanol can substitute current low, medium and high conventional methanol blends. Through the electrofuel production process, it can be turned into a drop-in fuel for gasoline, diesel and marine engines.

The Renewable Methanol Production Processes from Different Feedstocks

Renewable methanol from sustainable biomass sources is not theoretical. It is happening now in several countries such as Iceland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada:

  • Swedish company Södra is building a plant that will produce bio-methanol from the raw methanol resulting from their pulp mill manufacturing. The company says this is part of a sustainable circular process that uses all parts of forest raw materials to the best possible effect. Once completed, the plant will produce 5,000 metric tons of bio-methanol every year. According to Södra, their bio-methanol reduces CO2 emissions by 99% compared to fossil fuels.
  • Biochemical company Enerkem in Canada estimates that up to 420 million metric tons of unrecyclable waste could be turned into biochemicals, using their technology. Enerkem is building a plant in Rotterdam which will turn 350,000 metric tons of waste, including plastic matter, into 270 million liters of biomethanol every year. The company is already producing renewable methanol and ethanol in Canada. Based in Montreal, Canada, Enerkem is a cleantech company that produces clean transportation fuels and renewable chemicals from municipal solid waste (MSW).
  • In Iceland, Carbon Recycling International (CRI) is capturing and reacting CO2 from geothermal power- generation with renewable hydrogen produced via electrolysis into renewable methanol. The Icelandic grid, powered by hydro and geothermal energy, provides green electricity for the process of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. More than 4,000 metric tons of synthesized methanol (known as Vulcanol) are produced annually. Vulcanol is a clean burning, high octane fuel that can used directly as a vehicle fuel or blended with gasoline. It can also be used as a feedstock for producing biodiesel or fuel ethers and as a hydrocarbon feedstock for further production of synthetic materials. CRI supplies it to companies in Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and China. CRI’s renewable methanol does not use any fossil fuel inputs or agricultural resources as feedstocks. Vulcanol is certified by the ISCC system as an ultra-low carbon advanced renewable transport fuel with no biogenic footprint.
  • BioMCN in the Netherlands is converting biogas into advanced second-generation bio-methanol. The company operates two methanol production lines with a combined capacity of 900,000 tons at its plant located in Delfzijl in the northeastern part of the Netherlands. The plant was originally constructed in 1974 but was later mothballed in 2005 due to the high cost of natural gas. In 2006, BioMCN was founded and acquired the plant with the aim of producing renewable methanol from glycerin. In 2015, BioMCN was acquired by OCI N.V. and continued producing renewable methanol from biogas. During 2017, BioMCN produced nearly 60,000 tons of renewable methanol which was primarily sold as a biofuel in the European transportation fuel sector.


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