30 January 2020

Breaking Bad? The Case for Synthetic Fuels – METHANOL

If you are reading this blog hoping for a new advanced blue-tinge free recipe for crystal meth you might be disappointed to find that this story is about another meth – green methanol. Anyone interested in how to make home brewed methanol in a bucket using woodchips can look elsewhere! This blog is about energy transition and that almost certainly includes a challenge to conventions – breaking bad. Not all new technologies are appropriate for the reduction of CO2 emissions. The ‘appropriate’ bracket might include renewables such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectricity, tidal and bioenergy. And the inappropriate category could include geoengineering, addition of aerosols (sulphate) to the stratosphere to deflect light, space mirrors, adding iron to the oceans to generate algal growth and most disturbing of all, artificial trees.

SYN fuel not sinful

You cannot solve one pollution problem with another. When we look at Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) solutions today we realise there are huge costs to retrofit existing power stations (technical suitability) and the energy required to compress, liquefy CO2, transport and pump the gas into the ground could be described as ‘disturbing’.

The focus for this blog is another unconventional area – synthetic fuels and the opportunities available to generate such fuels from renewables. Are Power to Fuel plants the missing link? The acronyms P2X, P2Y, PtG, PtL all refer to energy conversion processes that can be used to store surplus power from renewable sources. Storing surplus electricity production at times of high output is seen as a key to stabilise renewable energy production. Further information can be found about this topic in the Siemens White Paper Power to X. https://new.siemens.com/global/en/products/energy/technical-papers/download-power-to-x.html

We might want to ‘decarbonise’ the mobility sector through use of synthetic fuels such as green hydrogen and green methanol. Or, we might just want to continue driving our 2.2litre diesel SUV for as long as possible and feel better about it. 

Green diesel and dimethyl ether (DME) can  be synthesised in addition to methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE from the reaction of methanol and isobutylene) –a fuel additive that replaces lead in petrol. There are many new and interesting examples of Power to Fuels. Siemens have been working for the last 18 months on a large scale Power to Methanol plant in Chile. Chile has the World’s best wind load factors ranging from 65-75%. There is an attractive market in Argentina for the electricity generated and market prices make transport of methanol to European markets a viable business opportunity. An international hub for ‘Power to Methanol’ has been developed with a dedicated port.

Another good example is the ‘thousand-ton scale demonstration of solar fuel synthesis’ operation in Lanzhou, China. This might be the world’s first demonstration project for direct solar fuel synthesis. http://english.cas.cn/newsroom/research_news/chem/202001/t20200113_229335.shtml The project is based on electrocatalytic water splitting and CO2 hydrogenation.

There is also a growing market for methanol in India and Assam Petro-Chemicals is set to be a major player in India’s methanol move. https://www.sentinelassam.com/top-headlines/assam-petro-chemicals-set-to-be-a-major-player-in-countrys-methanol-move/ Methanol can replace both petrol and diesel in the transport sector (road, rail and marine), energy sector (boilers) and retail cooking – partially replacing LPG Kerosene and wood charcoal. In India there is a bigger opportunity to blend fuels. Blending 15% methanol with petrol can lead to a 15% reduction in the import of crude oil and 20% lower Green House Gas (GHG) emissions including NOx and SOx. Although the use of coal as an energy source is frowned upon, the initiative is supported because Indian coal reserves can be combined with municipal solid waste and agricultural residues to form methanol. By working in this way, India aims to lower their oil import bill. A note of caution here Impreza drivers – your ‘owners manual’ states that your engine will be damaged beyond economical repair if more than 5% methanol is used. Tread carefully [Heisenberg].

Methanol fuel blends have reached the UK market too. Icelandic methanol made with waste CO2 from the geothermal power plant next to the blue lagoon is already being blended with petrol in the UK by VRI Vulcanol. 4000 Tons of methanol are produced a year through this initiative and we now power cars using Icelandic volcanoes in the UK. https://www.carbonrecycling.is/products

If the idea of CO2 capture and rerelease to the atmosphere through combustion is not ‘acceptable’, Bosch present us with another option – methanol powered cars that capture CO2. https://www.greencarcongress.com/2019/09/20190922-bosch.html

The idea is for cars to trap the CO2 and dispense with the waste CO2 at the refueling station.

There are very many examples of methanol use in the public domain and a policy paper produced by a panel of scientists published in September 2019 reviews aspects of the synthetic fuel industry in the UK. https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/synthetic-fuels/synthetic-fuels-briefing.pdf

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) reviewed the potential for synthetic fuels to help transition to more sustainable fuels over the next 20 years, at a time when energy demand is set to rise. Briefly, the conclusions were that Syn fuels can be manufactured with similar energy density to conventional fossil fuels and Syn fuels can be used as a “drop-in” replacement for jet fuel or diesel, without the need for major modification of engines or fuel supply infrastructure. Good news diesel drivers. Prof Matthew Davidson Deputy Chair of the Synthetic fuels steering group said: “Synthetic fuels could offer an interim solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by ‘defossilising’ difficult to address transport modes such as aviation. These fuels have the advantage of using known technologies and existing infrastructure”

In Scotland the draft Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind Energy consultation is open until 25 March 2020. Energy policy makers in the Scottish government would like to hear from industry about the location of wind farms and distance from the shore, floating vs deep sea wind farms, sector coupling and further coastal opportunities for energy storage or use. This would be a great opportunity for industry to lay the groundwork for potential projects in the area and an opportunity to find business partners for sectoral planning. Documents supporting the plan can be found here: https://www2.gov.scot/Topics/marine/marineenergy/Planning/draftSMPcons2019 There is a free consultation meeting in London on March 11 2020 where the plan will be discussed.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/draft-sectoral-marine-plan-for-offshore-wind-energy-marine-scotland-tickets-91166614799

In conclusion, a practical more useful energy system (decarbonised or otherwise) will exploit chemical storage. Examples from Chile, China and India show that Syn fuels enable an international market in renewable energy.  There are many routes to syn fuels – thermocatalytic conversion of CO2, electrocatalytic reduction of CO2, photocatalytic reduction of CO2 and biological conversion of CO2. At Siemens we are more interested in electrocatalytic reduction and syn fuels from renewables.

Power-to-Fuel plants are the missing link.

No more half measures. Say the words, say you want this [Heisenberg, of course].

Teaser Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

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