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Methanol Economy™

The Methanol Economy™ is a concept of developing chemistry to produce and use methanol in place of fossil fuels such as oil and gas. The goal is to develop renewable sources of energy that can help replace U.S. dependence upon fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), and to recycle carbon dioxide into new fuels and materials while mitigating manmade effects on climate change. Fossil fuels, oil, natural gas, and coal are major energy sources and the feed-stocks for a great variety of hydrocarbon-based manmade materials and products that range from fuels to synthetic materials, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. What nature gave us through eons of formation is being used up rapidly. One needs to search for ways to significantly increase the efficiency with which these precious resources are utilized (conservation) and ways in which to develop new energy sources.

USC’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute under the leadership of Nobel Laureate, Professor George A. Olah and his colleague, Professor G. K. Surya Prakash is developing this new approach (see Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy by G. A. Olah, A. Goeppert and G. K. S. Prakash, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2006). Methanol can be efficiently made by directly converting natural gas (i.e., methane) to methanol. Perhaps more importantly, methanol can also be made from carbon dioxide -- initially from high concentration exhausts of power plants, and eventually from the carbon dioxide content of the air itself. As the increasing carbon dioxide content of our atmosphere is a main factor in global warming, the “Methanol Economy” represents a feasible new approach to mitigate the manmade effect of climate change by recycling carbon dioxide into new fuels and materials. Although CO2. is recycled in the atmosphere through photosynthesis, no methods exist for its use as a significant carbon source for fuels or synthetic materials. Such a chemical recycling will also mitigate global warming. CO2 conversion, however, will need energy. The energy may come from alternative sources (solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, etc.) including nuclear energy.

Methanol is an excellent high-octane fuel for internal combustion engines and is an even more efficient fuel in fuel cells. Because it is a liquid at ambient temperatures (Boiling point: 64.6 ºC), methanol can be readily stored and transported using existing infrastructure. Methanol is readily converted to dimethyl ether (DME, a gas with a boiling point -24.9 ºC), which is an excellent and clean burning (high cetane number) diesel substitute and can replace LPG and LNG in all their applications. In addition, methanol can be readily converted to ethylene and propylene, which can replace petroleum as the starting material for the manufacture of virtually all the synthetic hydrocarbon products.


(c) 2014 Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences