Methanol Economy - Opportunities Abound

Industry By Surbhi Arora

India's Oil and Petroleum Minister, DharmendraPradhan are also smitten with methanol and he offered Rs. one lakh crore business to the Indian scientific community and industry that is driven to make methanol a reality.

Recently, the Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari vowed to eliminate petroleum imports. India's influential Transport Minister spoke at an event to brainstorm on methanol economy as a substitute for oil and gas and vowed 'we want to create a country where import bill for petroleum is zero!’. Today India annually spends Rs 4.5 lakh crore on importing petroleum products. The Minister feels that 'methane is a cost effective import substitution'.

A new form of industrial alcohol known as ‘methanol’ is now emerging to substitute the import of petroleum products. The government's key think tank – National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has been seriously exploring the opportunity deploying methanol as a possible way to achieve energy independence for India. Although, a revolutionary idea, it offers a solution to climate change.

Methanol also called wood alcohol is a form of primordial hydrocarbon made from methane gas. Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol and it is toxic to humans but it is as the NITI Aayog says, “An excellent light volatile, colourless flammable liquid fuel which can be blended with petrol”. It is a good replacement for petrol and its cousin Dimethyl Ether (DME) can be a good and cleaner alternative to diesel, believes the high powered think tank.

Burnt methanol gives out no smoke and does not emit black carbon soot so it could be a solution to contain the ever increasing air pollution. India has only recently introduced blending of petrol with ethanol and one large experimental pilot plant that produces ethanol from agri-waste was inaugurated this year at Kashipur.

Methanol could be a suitable alternative, according to the Methanol Institute, USA, an industry consortium that lobbies for inclusion of methanol. As a fuel, explains Methanol Institute, China is already using 15-20 percent of its fuel mixed with methanol. Industry experts suggest even the current make of cars can easily take fuel blended with 10 percent of methanol and in future when internal combustion engines which can run on multiple fuels then blending up to 85 percent with methanol could become a reality. Today large ships and heavy trucks are already being run on these future fuels. VK Saraswat, Member, NITI Aayog and chairperson of the committee on methanol thinks, “India should actively explore methanol and DME as possible longterm substitutes of oil and natural gas” who believes that India's vast agri-waste biomass and high-ash content coal can be suitably converted into methanol to power the Indian economy using its indigenous resources.

A recent position paper the NITI Aayog says 'it is reasonable to start to consider the "methanol economy" as a practical and feasible approach to answer the question which would supplement our ever increasing demand for oil and gas. It would provide a feasible and safe way to store energy, make available a convenient liquid fuel, and assure mankind an unlimited source of hydrocarbons while at the same time mitigating the dangers of global warming.

India's Oil and Petroleum Minister, DharmendraPradhan are also smitten with methanol and he offered Rs. one lakh crore business to the Indian scientific community and industry that is driven to make methanol a reality.

Today India is a net importer of methanol with most of it coming from Iran, but a methanol evangelist G.K. Surya Prakash born in Bengaluru and now a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles feels India offers a 35 billion litre methanol market. Prakash feels that in the long run methanol could be made by using carbon dioxide and when that happens the problem of global warning could easily be ameliorated.

According to the NITI Aayog one of big sources of methanol for the country could be rural and urban waste, especially agri-waste. Today tons of agri-waste which includes paddy straw is burnt by farmers in India's granaries of Punjab and Haryana, most of this biomass using some nifty technology could be converted into methanol.

In addition India's high ash content coal could be using suitable metallic catalysts be converted first into methane and then into methanol and DME. The downside is that today not even a single pilot plant exists in the country that can effectively demonstrate that high ash coal and coal bed methane can be economically converted into methanol.

Arvind Panagariya the economist and the vice chairman for NITI Aayog thinks that science can accomplish a lot but for those benefits like methanol to become part of everyday life, it really has to be cost effective. Panagariya added for wider adoption of methanol it has be 'commercially successful' and that remains a big challenge since other than China no other country has embraced methanol in a big way. But Panagriya believes 'methanol economy could be the answer' to India's quest for energy independence

In the 1990s, Nobel Prize-winner George A. Olah advocated a methanol economy. In 2006, he and two co-authors, G.K. Surya Prakash and Alain Goeppert, published a summary of the state of fossil fuel and alternative energy sources, including their availability and limitations, before suggesting a methanol economy. The methanol economy is a future economy in which methanol and dimethyl coyld replace fossil fuels as a means of energy storage, ground transportation fuel and raw material for synthetic hydrocarbons and their products. It offers an alternative to the proposed hydrogen economy or ethanol economy.

Methanol can be produced from a wide variety of sources including still-abundant fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, oil shale, tar sands, etc.), but also agricultural products and municipal waste, wood and varied biomass. It can also be made from chemical recycling of carbon dioxide.

Methanol is a fuel for heat engines and fuel cells. Due to its high octane rating, it can be used directly as a fuel in flex-fuel cars (including hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles) using existing internal combustion engines (ICE). Methanol can also be used as a fuel in fuel cells, either directly in Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFC) or indirectly (after conversion into hydrogen by reforming).

New alloys need to be used in methanol using engines as it can be toxic to aluminium. Recently, many scientists and engineers gathered to brainstormed in New Delhi on 'India's leap into a Methanol Economy' to deliberate if India can take the path of adopting methanol as its future fuel.

India is transforming towards a developed nation. The Prime Minister’s key focus of securing our energy needs and bringing down our import bill can also be met through this. The Methanol Economy can help India to mitigate its petroleum import costs and at the same time counter problem associated with global warming due to excess CO2 emissions.

India can also use its abundant coal reserves to produce Methanol through gasification. Abundant non-edible biomass can also be gasified to produce Methanol. On the utility front, India would like to explore the possibilities in using Methanol and DME as a transportation fuel in road transport, shipping and our gigantic rail network. Indian Railways consumes 3 billion litres of diesel every year. We need to look to cheaper and less polluting alternatives.

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