Today, the leading company making methanol from carbon dioxide is Carbon Recycling International, an Icelandic company. Geely invested in CRI in 2015 and they have partnered to build the world’s largest CO.2fuel factory in China. When in operation, it could recycle 160,000 tons of CO2 emissions from steel plants each year.
The net production potential is what makes methanol desirable as a fuel. It is not only a more efficient way to use energy, but also a way to remove existing CO2 from the air To achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, as China has promised, the country cannot put all its eggs in one basket, such as electric vehicles. Popularizing the use of methanol fuel and clean methanol production may allow China to reach its goal sooner.
Can methanol move beyond its dirty roots?
But the future is not all bright and green. Currently, most methanol in China is still made from coal. In fact, the ability to fuel cars with coal instead of oil, which China doesn’t have much of, was one of the main reasons the country pursued methanol in the first place. Today, the Chinese provinces leading experiments with methanol in cars are also those with abundant coal resources.
But, as Bromberg says, unlike gas and diesel, at least methanol has it potential be green Methanol production can still have a high carbon footprint today, just as most electric vehicles in China still run on electricity generated from coal. But there is a path to move from coal-fired methanol to renewable energy-produced methanol.
“If that’s not an intent, if people aren’t going to pursue low-carbon methanol, you don’t really want to implement methanol at all,” Bromberg says.
Methanol fuel also has other potential drawbacks. It has a lower energy density than gasoline or diesel, and requires larger and heavier fuel tanks, or drivers may need to refuel more often. This also effectively prevents methanol from being used as jet fuel.
In addition, methanol is severely toxic when ingested and moderately toxic when inhaled or when people are exposed to it in large amounts. Potential harm was a major concern during the pilot program, although researchers concluded that methanol was no more toxic to participants than gas.
Beyond China, some other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, are also exploring the potential of methanol fuels. China, however, is at least one step ahead of the rest, even if it remains a big question whether it will replicate its success in developing electric vehicles or follow the path of another country with a major auto industry.
In 1982, California offered subsidies to automakers to build more than 900 methanol cars in a pilot program. The Reagan administration even pushed the Alternative Fuels Act to promote the use of methanol. But the lack of defense and falling gasoline prices prevented further research into methanol fuel, and pilot drivers, while generally satisfied with the performance of their cars, complained about the availability of fuel from methanol and the lower autonomy compared to gas cars. California officially ended the use of methanol cars in 2005, and there has been no experimentation of any kind in the US since then.