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Biomethanol still a pipe dream?

Summary

Although natural gas remains the feedstock for almost all of the world's methanol production, and coal the rest, environmental concerns are driving a push towards so-called 'biomethanol' methanol produced from renewable or waste materials. This article aims to review the current state of development and commercialisation of biomethanol projects.

Abstract

Methanol stands on the threshold of becoming a major global fuel. However, while its proponents have been keen to stress its green credentials, especially compared to gasoline, it has been vulnerable to attack on one front, which is the amount of fossil fuel which goes into producing it. It is estimated that currently, for every tonne of methanol produced, around 300kg of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. In the era of Kyoto and carbon emission trading, this could become a major factor affecting methanol’s commercialisation.

The vast majority of global methanol production comes from steam reformed natural gas. However, this was not always the case. For many years before the development of BASF’s synthetic methanol process in the 1920s, methanol had been produced from wood blocks as “wood alcohol”. With the energy crisis of the 1970s and the growth of the Green Movement has come an increasing focus upon all uses of fossil fuel, and the question of whether methanol could be economically produced from organic materials came back into view. Ethanol made from corn is widely used in the US (thanks to Federal tax breaks to encourage alternative fuels) and since a $0.60/gallon tax credit also accrues to methanol from renewable sources in the US, attention has turned to the possible production of methanol from ‘biomass’ – natural materials that can be used as fuel, including wood, pelletised wood, other pelletised fuels, agricultural residues and municipal solid waste. Methanol produced from biomass has come to be known as “biomethanol”.

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Chemicals from methanol

Summary

Aside from its direct or (after processing) indirect use as a fuel, methanol is also used in manufacturing various chemicals and intermediates. We look at its conversion to two of the most important formaldehyde and acetic acid.

Abstract

Fuel use would appear to offer the biggest growth prospects for methanol these days, whether as a substitute for more conventional fuels in thermal power generation, as the energy source for stationary or mobile fuel cells, as a direct additive to gasoline or (outside the United States, where it is being phased out) after processing into another gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Historically, however, the chemical industry has been the main user of methanol as a feedstock for the manufacture of a variety of chemicals.

In volume terms formaldehyde (methanal; HCHO) and acetic acid (ethanoic acid; CH3COOH) are the most important (in that order) because, in addition to their uses as end products, they are also intermediates in the manufacture of a variety of other chemicals. Around 20 million tonnes of formaldehyde are manufactured annually, whereas acetic acid production amounts to around 6 million tonnes.

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Mega-methanol and what to use it for

Summary

Two 5,000-t/d methanol projects are in progress at the moment, and the technology needs only a little fine tuning to be capable of double that capacity when the market is ready for it. Here Sascha Streb of Lurgi describes his company's technology and considers what could be done with the output of such vast new plants.

Abstract

Regular readers of Nitrogen & Methanol know how volatile the methanol market has been in recent years, with plants working at full capacity one minute and being turned down or mothballed the next. It does not seem to be a very good climate in which to make decisions on major new investments in methanol production. But in the long term, considering that the major new sources of natural gas are now often very remote from any actual or even potential user, and considering the impact of environmental restraints on alternative fuels, there is evidently a large potential for methanol as a clean and easily transportable fuel or chemical feedstock – a medium for conveying the energy value of natural gas to the market.

As a fuel, nothing comes much cleaner than methanol. Whatever the feedstock used to make it, effectively all the environmentally damaging impurities such as sulphur have to eliminated in the production process, otherwise it will not continue working. And methanol creates much fewer nitrogen oxides during normal combustion than any hydrocarbon fuel, methane included. Since nitrogen oxide emissions in combustion exhausts are now subject to stringent controls in most industrially-advanced countries, switching to a cleaner-burning fuel could bring substantial savings in the cost of NOx abatement.

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