For years researchers have been looking for a way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol in a single step using energy-efficient processes.  At the Université Laval researchers have developed a highly effective method for converting CO2 into methanol.  If the method can scale up commercially the amount of methanol fuel produced could be essentially unlimited.

The team led by Professor Frédéric-Georges Fontaine presented the details of this discovery in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Professor Fontaine explains, “In the presence of oxygen, methanol combustion produces CO2 and water. Chemists are looking for catalysts that would yield the opposite reaction. That would allow us to slash greenhouse gas emissions by synthesizing a fuel that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

The catalyst developed by Frédéric-Georges Fontaine and his team is made of two chemical groups. The first is borane, a compound of boron, carbon, and hydrogen. The second, phosphine, is made up of phosphorus, carbon, and hydrogen. “Unlike most catalysts developed thus far to convert CO2 into methanol, ours contains no metal, which reduces both the costs and toxic hazard of the catalyst,” added the chemistry professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Methanol Production Chemical Steps. Click image for the largest view.

Methanol Production Chemical Steps. Click image for the largest view.

CO2 to methanol catalysis requires a source of hydrogen and chemical energy. The researchers came up with the idea of using a compound called hydroborane (BH3), and the results have been spectacular. The reaction achieved is two times more effective than the best catalyst known – and it produces little waste. What makes the discovery even more compelling is the fact that the chemical reaction does not damage the catalyst, which can be reactivated by adding new substrate.

The only downside of the operation is the price tag. “Our approach to creating methanol is highly effective from a chemistry standpoint, but for now the process is expensive,” explained Professor Fontaine. “It takes a lot of energy to synthesize hydroborane, which makes it more expensive than methanol. We are working on ways to make the process more profitable by optimizing the reaction and exploring other hydrogen sources.”

The French Canadians have laid claim to the future of methanol production.  Its clear the method will work.

It’s the practical realities that bedevil the future for methanol.  Processes will need concentrated or near pure CO2 supplies.  That input looks practical, combustion can yield CO2 readily and taking it from the effluent is technology in hand.  It’s not cheap, nor is it prohibitively expensive.

The hydrogen supply is the prime problem.  Methanol is a very hydrogen rich molecule at four hydrogen atoms to one each of carbon and oxygen.  Coming up with commercial volumes to make methanol fuel is a major issue.  Still, methanol is a great way to store hydrogen and it is already in a fuel form.

As a fuel methanol will combust in engines, power fuel cells, and is a feedstock for producing other fuels.  Finding a way to produce it economically is a worthwhile effort.

The French Canadians are on to something.  It may turn out to be big.  For now it’s a possibility that could set up an unlimited fuel supply.


1 Comment so far

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