Methanol Offers Renewable Energy Solutions

In the face of all the press surrounding solar and wind power, it’s easy to gloss over the renewable energy potential of the comparably less-glamorous methanol. Recent technology developments are making renewable methanol a more economically attractive alternative.

Arlington, Virginia – September 16, 2004 [] Each year, 12 billion gallons of methanol are consumed worldwide for the production of hundreds of essential chemical commodities. Most methanol is produced from natural gas or coal in large manufacturing plants with capacities often exceeding several hundred million gallons per year. Also known as “wood alcohol,” methanol can be made from a host of renewable feedstocks. “What do fast-growing trees, sugar beets, pig manure, scrapped cars, black liquor, landfill gas, and German marks have in common? They are all being used to produce renewable methanol,” said Methanol Institute President and CEO John Lynn. “Using renewable feedstocks to produce a high-value chemical like methanol makes a lot of sense. Looking ahead, as fuel cell technologies enter the market to power our laptop computers and cars, renewable methanol will fill a central role in the hydrogen economy.” “There are many ways to diversify our nation’s energy portfolio, and finding renewable feedstocks for producing basic chemicals and fuels is a critical activity,” said Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), co-chair of the U.S. House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus. “The methanol industry is responding to this challenge by encouraging the development of an array of biomass resources for methanol production.” Here are just a few examples of the latest developments in the commercialization of renewable methanol production technologies: Firm Green Energy (FGE) of Irvine, California is awaiting final construction permit approval to build a five million gallon per year green methanol plant in Grove City, Ohio. Sited near the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio’s Franklin County landfill, the plant will use renewable landfill methane gas as a feedstock for methanol production. One-fourth of the methanol will be used to produce biodiesel fuel on-site. The remaining methanol will be sold on the wholesale market. The project also will incorporate cogeneration by generating electricity from reciprocating gas engines running on landfill gas. BEST BioFuels, LLC of Austin, Texas will use manure from over 250,000 pigs in Southern Utah to produce methanol. The plant will process 25 tons of manure per day through a digester to produce enough methanol to generate 7,500 gallons of methanol daily, or nearly three million gallons per year. Smithfield Foods, which owns the Utah farm and is the largest hog producer in the world, is considering other sites for introducing this technology. Atlantic Biomass Conversions, Inc. of Frederick, Maryland has received funding from the State of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a genetically enhanced bacteria that can directly convert sugar beet pulp waste into methanol. The genetic engineering process can be easily integrated into existing sugar beet processing plants. With a low value to sugar beet producers and processors, enough sugar beet pulp is generated in the U.S. to produce 250 million gallons of methanol per year. In Japan, Chubu Electric Power Co. is collecting driftwood at dams and other wood wastes which are then ground into a fine powder. The powder is then incinerated at a temperature of 1,000 degrees C in a furnace to produce a gas stream that is used for methanol production. Also in Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is operating a pilot plant to gasify 110-pounds per day of biomass for the production of methanol. Various biomass products such as Italian Ryegrass and rice straw have been successfully synthesized into methanol in this pilot plant. Australia’s national science agency devised a computer model to show that harvesting fast-growing trees planted over 74 million acres of forest land could produce enough methanol to replace 90 percent of the nation’s transportation fuels. The development of a methanol economy would successfully “decarbonize” economic growth in Australia, while creating 400,000 direct jobs and total savings on energy imports by 2050 of $18 billion. In Sweden, Nykomb Synergetics and Chemrec will soon start-up a 20-ton per day development plant gasifying black liquor – a pulp-rich slurry from paper mill waste – into methanol. A staggering 28 million tons of methanol could be produced from black liquor in the U.S. alone, equally today’s total world production of methanol. In Germany, a refuse reprocessing plant is receiving one to 1.5 tons – up to 100 million marks – of shredded notes per day from the Berlin office of the central bank, and turning them into methanol. The Schwarze Pumpe plant near the Polish border, has a history of turning unusual items into methanol including car bumpers and dashboards, a wooden ship that ran aground, and even drugs seized by police. The material is all shredded, a small amount of coal is added, and then the mixture is heated to 1,600ýC, with the resulting gas used to make methanol. In the future, the world’s oceans may become a feedstock source for methanol production. Large-scale seaweed farming on the Eastern Pacific equator could be used to generate significant quantities of methanol, while sequestering and recycling carbon dioxide and helping to control climate change. Deep under the ocean floor, methane gas is trapped in ice-like crystals that one day may be extracted for methanol production. By some estimates, methane hydrates could provide an energy source for thousands of years. “No other alternative fuel offers as many conventional and renewable production pathways as methanol,” said Lynn. “Our national security, economic vitality and environmental future demand that we diversify our energy portfolio. We need look no further than methanol. With the ability to use methanol in today’s car engines and electric turbines, and as a hydrogen carrier fuel for tomorrow’s fuel cell technology, methanol is the clear alternative.” The Methanol Institute is offering a Methanol Forum, October 13-14, 2004, in Houston, Texas.
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