Will methanol be the fuel to power clean ICEs of the future?Peter Els | March 06, 2023
As regions around the world begin to count the cost of global warming, regulators are doubling down on efforts to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The automotive industry, for its part, is rapidly ramping up the rollout of zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs), particularly battery electric vehicles (BEVs), to clean up carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the switch to ZEVs will not happen overnight.
To achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) objective of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to “net zero” by 2050, in the medium term the global electric car fleet will have to grow to over 300 million by 2030, with BEVs accounting for 60% of new vehicle sales.
Regrettably, despite strong sales, electric vehicles (EVs) have not yet achieved the critical mass needed to support these numbers.
So, even though ZEVs will play a crucial role in achieving carbon-neutral road transport in the longer term, with at least half of the 3 billion light-duty vehicles on the world’s roads expected to still be powered by internal combustion engines in 2050, it is crucial to reduce these vehicles’ tailpipe emissions.
The best long-term solution to reducing these emissions lies with clean-burning alternatives to fossil fuels. One such alternative, renewable methanol — also known as green methanol — is not only environmentally friendly but can also be distributed through existing infrastructure and be combusted in ICEs with a minimum of engine modification.
Renewable methanol as a clean fuel of the future
As the most basic alcohol, methanol is a versatile, affordable alternative transportation fuel due to its efficient combustion, ease of distribution, and wide availability around the globe.
As a result, methanol has been used in gasoline blends around the world at low (3% to 5%), mid (15% to 30%), and high (50% to 100%) volume concentrations, and as a diesel substitute for use in heavy-duty vehicles. What is more, as a clean-burning, biodegradable fuel, methanol’s environmental and economic advantages make it an attractive alternative fuel for powering clean ICE vehicles of the future.
Although methanol is mostly produced using natural gas as the principal feedstock, the synthesis gas — a mix of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide — can be sourced from a wide range of feedstocks.
Thus, when producing renewable methanol, an ultra-low carbon chemical, the feedstock is typically replaced with sustainable biomass. Also known as bio-methanol, in this instance, renewable methanol is produced by subjecting organic matter to a fermentation or gasification process (subjecting the biomass to high temperature in the absence of air) to produce synthesis gas (syngas) that is then treated in a reactor.
Renewable methanol from sustainable biomass sources is already being produced in Iceland, the Netherlands, Canada and Sweden where Södra, a forest industry group, produces bio-methanol from the raw methanol collected from their pulp mill. The company says the plant, which produces 5,000 metric tons of bio-methanol every year, radically reduces the operation’s CO2 emissions.
When used as a fuel, renewable bio-methanol drastically cuts greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is reduced by up to 95%, nitrogen oxide by up to 80%, while sulfur oxide and particulate matter emissions are eliminated.
Methanol is also an important building block for future fuels such as dimethyl ether and electro fuels — e-methanol.
eMethanol a net-carbon-neutral fuel of the future
While biomethanol is produced from biomass feedstocks such as forestry and agricultural waste, e-methanol is typically produced by combining green hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide from industrial sources. Because green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy and the carbon dioxide used is captured, e-methanol is classified as an alternative net-carbon-neutral fuel.
E-methanol’s inherent stability allows it to be stored at room temperature and ambient pressure, giving it an indefinite shelf life that qualifies it as a drop-in fuel compatible with existing infrastructure.
Used to power ICEs, the high-octane fuel is clean burning and can be used unmodified or blended with gasoline. It can also be used as a feedstock for producing biodiesel or fuel ethers and as a hydrocarbon feedstock for the further production of synthetic materials.
The world’s first commercial-scale CO2-to-methanol plant started production in Anyang, Henan Province, China. in 2022. The plant's production process is based on the Emissions-to-Liquids (ETL) technology developed by Carbon Recycling International (CRI), which was first demonstrated in Iceland.
The ETL process in China uses CO2 emissions captured from lime production and hydrogen recovered from coke-oven gas as input feeds. These are processed in CRI’s bespoke reactor using specialized catalysts to convert the carbon and hydrogen feed gases into low-carbon methanol. The process saves over 550,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year compared with making methanol from coal.
Using CRI’s proprietary ETL reactor system the plant can produce 120,000 tons of methanol per year, while the 180,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions captured each year is equivalent to removing the emissions of 60,000 cars.
According to CRI, the low carbon methanol fuel — branded as Vulcanol in Iceland — thus produced reduces carbon emissions by more than 90% over the complete product life cycle compared to fossil fuels.
To prove the compatibility of the fuel Geely and CRI have conducted a long-term fleet test of Geely’s 100% methanol-powered cars in Iceland. The cars were driven more than 90,000 miles over an 18-month period, with participants reporting virtually no difference in driving experience compared to regular gasoline or diesel-fueled cars.
With respect to transportation fuels, renewable methanol can readily substitute current low, medium and high conventional methanol blends. Through the electro fuel production process, it can be turned into a drop-in fuel for gasoline, diesel, and marine engines.
Even though decarbonizing transport is becoming an increasingly important goal of governments around the world, solutions will have to be environmentally and economically sustainable. Thus, fuel and transport alternatives not only need to achieve net zero GHG emissions and reduce air pollutants such as NOx and PM, but they will also have to be cost-effective and easily accessible.
Fuels of the future must be able to tick all four of these boxes, and the fuels that do will be "future-proof."
Methanol when produced from renewable biomass feedstocks, ticks these boxes, as does methanol-derived electro fuel, thus offering a clear pathway to drastically cutting future ICE vehicle emissions.
About the author
Peter Els is a South Africa-based former automotive engineer. This includes time with Nissan South Africa’s Product Development Division, Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, Fiat/Alfa Romeo, Beijing Automotive Works (BAW), as well as tier-one suppliers Robert Bosch and Pi Shurlok. After consulting to the local industry for 15 years, Els has ventured into technical writing and journalism about the latest trends, technologies, opportunities and threats facing the new world of mobility.