The Potential of Methanol

Last week I received an email from John Bockris, a retired Distinguished Professor from Texas A&M University. I presume Professor Bockris had come across some of my writings on methanol, as that was the topic of his correspondence. I don’t think Professor Bockris realized that we had met when I was a first year chemistry graduate student at Texas A&M. At that time he was one of the most well-known professors in the chemistry department. (See also: Methanol versus Ethanol: Technical Merits and Political Favoritism)

I asked for permission to publish our correspondence, and permission was granted. My reply to him is in blue. Just one correction. He referred to me as Dr. Rapier. When I was halfway through my chemistry Ph.D. at Texas A&M, it had become clear to me that chemical engineering salaries were much higher. So I switched to the chemical engineering department and got my Master of Science degree. Thus, I am merely “Mr. Rapier”, or more preferably just “Robert.”

I include his contact information in case anyone wants to engage with him about methanol.

Dear Dr. Rapier,

I am writing to you in respect to the tar sands controversy and wanted to point out a couple of things which I think influence the debate.

The figures are such that the total tar sands would not last very long.  I read that the total tar sands which are projected to exist at this time is 276 billion barrels of oil.  The daily use by the world is 0.1 billion barrels.  So this supply from the tar sands would only last us around 2000-3000 days; therefore, they are hardly worth developing.  Of course this view is totally different from some other who paint the tar sands as though they were tremendously available.  I thought this at the beginning but after I looked up the facts, I concluded that there is not much tar sands oil to depend on.

To be impressed by tar sands, the supply would have to at least last us for 50 years to cover all the trouble that would be needed to process the oil from them.

At the moment, the thing I believe is necessary to be understood by you and other experts in the field of the future atmosphere is the scheme that I have been putting forward since 2008, partly with the help of George Olah who has written two books on The Methanol Economy.  He thinks, and to some extent I agree, that methanol is the ideal replacement for gasoline.  It is very like gasoline in its properties so that a change over need only minimal engineering.

Methanol can be made into a zero carbon fuel in a simple way.   The “trick” is to make it from CO2 that exists in the atmosphere.  Thus, in principal, one takes CO2 from the atmosphere (a big task but it can be solved, see below), and uses it in the synthesis of methanol.

The chemical equation is:  3H2 + CO2 –> CH3OH + H2O

Now one as the methanol and in it lie dormant CO2 which was taken from the atmosphere.  You then burn this methanol as a fuel and use the heat energy to run the world.  In doing so (burning and using the methanol made from CO2 from the atmosphere as a fuel), the CO2 is reintroduced into the atmosphere.  In this way, you can see that using this methanol is a zero carbon scheme; i.e. it has no increase or decrease in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It will not lead to a lessening of the greenhouse effect (though there is a way of doing this) but it would stop the rapid growth.  Were it to be assumed the world over in the next 20-30 years, we should be saved from heat death.

This method is so simple and straightforward, it is really remarkable that it has not been grabbed.  I am surprised too that Olah’s books, though I don’t think they include the way of avoiding the greenhouse effect, are not taken more seriously as they present methanol as a fuel and give all the right information for a changeover.

Another socioeconomic aspect which should be put forward is that the elephant on the stage, if I may use that analogy, are the oil companies as a group.  Their financial power is so great that to go against their will may be impossible unless it is a national revolution by an army.  The owners of the present oil reserves would like to keep selling for a long time and thus incurring heat death in various parts of the world.  I think this is immoral and we should go to great lengths to stop it.  The solution is easy:  use methanol made from CO2 in the atmosphere.

John Bockris
(Retired) Distinguished Professor, Texas A&M University (1978-1997)
Phone: (352) 335-3843 or 6578
Fax:  (352) 335-6925

My reply:

Hello Professor Bockris,

We actually met when I was a chemistry graduate student at Texas A&M in the early 1990’s. I was in Ron Macfarlane’s group for 2 years before I switched to chemical engineering and got my MS under Mark Holtzapple.

I agree that the tar sands reserves in Canada are not all that large. I have made this point with respect to the climate change debate. The tar sands won’t contribute enough to matter much compared to other sources such as China’s coal consumption.

As far as methanol, I am very enthusiastic about methanol possibilities. I have written a number of columns on that (I am guessing you found me as a result of one of those columns) and I promoted methanol in my book Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil. What methanol lacks is enough political support. If it had the political support of corn ethanol, methanol could have already made an enormous contribution to U.S. energy supplies.

I am aware of that route for making methanol, and of Olah’s books, but I am wondering whether anyone has even constructed a pilot facility for producing methanol from CO2? I would expect that the low concentrations in the atmosphere would be a problem, and really what you would want to do is capture the emissions from a fossil-fuel power plant.

Cheers, Robert Rapier

Here is his reply back to me:


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Robert Rapier:

Dear Dr. Rapier:

Thank you for your letter of September the 11th.  I’d just like to add about methanol as a fuel.  I’m fully in favor of it.  In fact I wrote an article about it in 1975 and included it in one of my books in 1980.  In both those cases I mentioned the possibility of the large scale used but in the end I preferred hydrogen because at that time I was not convinced that the cost of it including the storage at high pressure and the reconversion to electricity would be too much.

There is one point about methanol that adds to what Olah and his very helpful and excellent books he has written.  It depends on how you make the methanol and if the hydrogen  you use comes from electrolysis only and the electricity used for the electrolysis of a renewable, then of course your hydrogen is both clean and also helpful for the furthering development of methanol.  Then we’re going to use the direct method for methanol hydrogen conversion and there are plenty of papers on that in the United States now although until about 2000 there was mainly a reaction investigated in Japan and needs a catalyst.

There is one extra thing one has to be careful thing and that is from where one gets the CO2.  It has to be in a stream so it would be very difficult to get it from the atmosphere directly, but of course  CO2 from the atmosphere is trapped in all sorts of ways in the atmosphere and in a general way is represented by the biomass formation equation:

H2OAt + CO2At –>CH2OAt + O2

There are very large resources of this kind in nature in all kinds of ways and I feel that one would develop, according to what was available in the environment taking these materials and making them into something suitable for transport to the gas stations where  the CO2 containing bricks would be burned to produce CO2.  Of course there might be some purification process on the way here because burning the biomass bricks is not going to produce pure CO2.

The pure CO2 (underneath the gas station) would then be combined with the  hydrogen from electrolysis.

Now, comes the good part.  The CO2 you use here comes really from the atmosphere.  So when you burn the methanol which has the CO2 in it, you’ve taken a molecule of CO2 from the atmosphere and by burning it in the fuel, put it back again.  There’s no net use up of CO2 and no global warming!

You’re quite right in hinting that the major problem here is the political side and I’m sure that’s much more for you to suggest than me.  I’m a physical chemist and I’ve never been a politician, but I guess finally we may be able to get it in people’s minds that they do face dangerous global warming within ten years if we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere.  Indeed in places like Saudi Arabia and Iraq they have dangerous temperatures, e.g., 123°F and this will come much sooner than ten years from now in the summer.

If I can do anything to help you in anything to do with methanol and Professor Olah, I stand at your service.

Good wishes.


John O’M. Bockris

Retired Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemistry, Texas A&M University, 1978 to 1997; Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Pennsylvania, 1953 to 1972.