It's Time for Methanol

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In the December 2013 issue of Trends, we discussed how new extraction technologies have enabled the U.S. to increase its supply of recoverable natural gas to the highest level in history.  As a result, according to recent estimates from the Potential Gas Committee, at least 2 quadrillion 384 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is now recoverable in the United States.  This is an increase of 486 trillion cubic feet, or 26 percent, from the 2010 estimate.1  

As the supply has increased, prices have plummeted and longer-term even these resources will be dwarfed by natural gas stored as undersea methane hydrate.  What that means is that we need to aggressively exploit this clean and inexpensive resource in as many ways as possible. 

Thanks to recent breakthroughs, one of the most promising paths involves harnessing methanol made from natural gas as a cheap, clean alternative to petroleum and ethanol.

What is methanol?  It is the simplest type of alcohol molecule.  The process starts with methane, the primary component of natural gas.  Then, by replacing one of the four hydrogen atoms surrounding the carbon atom in methane with a hydroxyl group the gas is transformed into a liquid.  

A Methanol Fuel Cell

Significantly, methanol has most of the desirable attributes of ethanol, without consuming corn and other agricultural products that could be used to feed people and animals.  But, if methanol is easier and cheaper to make than ethanol, why do we mix our gasoline with ethanol rather than methanol? 

During the 1970s, the Carter Administration attempted to prevent the economic disaster of another oil embargo by subsidizing the production of ethanol.  Currently, the U.S. produces 13.8 billion gallons of ethanol annually; mostly for fuel.2 

But ethanol has significant drawbacks, in addition to the expense of producing it.  The primary problem is that it is made from corn; as the demand has grown, competition between energy producers and food producers has driven up the cost of the crop...

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