Methanol could replace hydrogen gas, ethanol, and gasoline as the primary fuel source of the future for vehicles and airplanes. Methanol’s attractiveness as a viable fuel source has resulted in an increase in research from universities and federal governments alike. Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has been one of the front runners in the research and development of methanol as a fuel source. Methanol is currently produced using fossil fuels, primarily from the methane in natural gas. Researchers from Chalmers are developing new methods for producing methanol using renewable energy from the sun.
Methanol has numerous benefits as opposed to ethanol, hydrogen gas and gasoline, which makes it very attractive. First, methanol releases significantly less noxious emissions into the atmosphere. In fact, vehicles powered exclusively by methanol release no particulate matter, less nitrogen oxides, and fewer reactive hydrocarbons, primary ingredients in photochemical smog. Secondly, it is currently compatible with the existing infrastructure for storage and use in vehicles, unlike its counterpart, hydrogen gas. Third, its production does not result in environmental degradation, unlike exploration and production of oil. Also, methanol production has the ability to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Lastly, the latest production approach by researchers at Chalmers uses 100% renewable energy, eliminating fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and even biomass from the reaction equation.
The new approach is designed to produce methanol at a scale large enough and inexpensive enough to supplant other automotive fuel sources. The production of methanol includes several steps. First the water molecules are split so that hydrogen and oxygen are formed. The hydrogen then reacts with carbon dioxide, and methanol is formed. Both of the reactions are forced through photocatalysis, which means that solar energy is directly transformed into chemical energy. In addition, researchers hope it will be possible to condense carbon dioxide from the air, making it an entirely carbon dioxide neutral cycle. The use of solar energy, as opposed to coal or natural gas, is the breakthrough researchers are hoping can be done on a large enough and less expensive scale.
As prices of oil continue to fluctuate, the search for a viable replacement will become even more important. More research is needed to find a methanol production process that is completely carbon neutral.