University of Southern California researchers have devised a way to produce and store hydrogen from methanol, without concurrent production of either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, by trapping it in organic derivatives of ammonia called amines.

USC scientists have found a way to tap hydrogen fuel from methanol without producing concurrent carbon.  Image Credit: G. K. Surya Prakash. Click image for the largest view.

1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner the late George Olah in his last major paper, G. K. Surya Prakash, and their team at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences have had their research paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society where they outlined the carbon-neutral method with a little help from the simplest alcohol known to man: methanol.

The well-known steam reforming process usually used to extract hydrogen from methanol, called the methanol reformer, traditionally produces carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as part of this extraction process.

The research of Prakash, Olah and their team has been focused on finding a way to extract hydrogen fuel from methanol in ways that are not only carbon-neutral, but can even be carbon-positive.

Methanol, sometimes called “wood alcohol,” is the simplest alcohol that can be produced, requiring only water, carbon dioxide and energy. While methanol stores half the energy of traditional petroleum-based gasoline, the light that burns half as bright also burns more cleanly, with no soot, particulates or other residue.

Methanol quickly biodegrades. It has traditionally been produced from natural gas and can be corrosive to older automobile tubing and casing, though much less so to newer generations of automobiles. Methanol is a more efficient fuel to replace gasoline or diesel, but it provides fewer miles to the gallon because of its lower energy density.

Methanol has also long been prized by race car drivers for its higher octane on shorter tracks and because it produces clearer smoke, preventing pileups. Also, unlike typical petroleum-based gasoline, water is effective in fighting methanol-based fires, though those clean-burning fires often appear invisible in daylight. However, additives can also easily be added to methanol to increase visibility.

Methanol is also already employed in the raw chemical production of all petroleum-based chemicals and products.

In a testament to its elegance, simplicity and ubiquity, methanol naturally occurs in small amounts in Earth’s atmosphere, and there are even huge clouds of it floating in the star-forming regions of space. Olah, Prakash and colleagues published research last year examining the differences between the formation of methanol both terrestrially and extraterrestrially.

Prakash, who worked with Olah for more than 40 years, said “Olah was a giant of a chemist and a great visionary who had a prophetic approach to solve tough problems. He had remarkable memory and was quite intuitive. He was very well-read, he knew history and philosophy and appreciated music and the arts. He was a voracious reader. He can be described as a Renaissance man.”

The research demonstrates just one more way carbon has been freed from the cycle of creating and storing fuels via methanol, supporting Olah and Prakash’s long-standing vision of a completely renewable “methanol economy.”

“The Methanol Economy” is a concept that the Olah-Prakash team first began refining in the mid-1990s, right after the time Olah became USC’s first Nobel laureate for his contributions to carbocations, the name that Olah himself coined for ions that have a positively charged carbon atom.

According to Olah and Prakash, the goal of a methanol-based economy would be to develop renewable sources of energy, led by methanol, that could mitigate the problem of climate change caused by carbon emissions, as well as the U.S. dependence on other countries for energy, particularly oil.

The need to offset crude oil consumption has only grown in the intervening decades since Olah and Prakash began their research. At that time, global consumption of oil was around 70 million barrels; that number is expected to be about 100 million as early as next year.

Countries like China have already begun the transition away from petroleum. At the beginning of the century, methanol use there was negligible but now accounts for more than 500,000 barrels each day, though much of it is coal-based, which can create its own problematic carbon runoff.

The USC news story leaves a lot about methanol out. Its already being used in Asia as a fuel cell fuel. There is also a lot of excess content involving greenhouse gases and such. And as usual, little or nothing is said about the reality of what 80 to 100 million barrels of crude oil represents as energy.

The science is welcome, though. For now methanol and its use is too small of a market to attract either devices needing fuel or the production capacity to keep a niche system going. But never say never, if a team can put together a 75 kilowatt power unit and an economical methanol fuel supply it could trigger the methanol economy’s startup.


2 Comments so far

  1. Kaiser Derden on April 26, 2017 9:49 AM

    “Methanol is a more efficient fuel to replace gasoline or diesel, but it provides fewer miles to the gallon because of its lower energy density.”

    You manage to refute yourself in the same sentence … amazing …

  2. Brian Westenhaus on April 26, 2017 9:28 PM

    Almost 100% right there, Kaiser. Poor sentence, my bad. Methanol is more thermally efficient than current gasoline sold. A methanol engine would also be lower in weight than a diesel and one would expect less costly to produce. Methanol is really better suited for fuel cells, if they get long lived enough someday, which would offer far more efficiency.

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