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Green Methanol

Methanol is one type of alcohol fuel that can be used as alternative fuel in gasoline combustion engines, either directly or in combination with gasoline. If it is used as low blend in gasoline, very little or even no modifications of the engine are needed.

Methanol is produced from hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Normally the feedstock is petroleum based, such as natural gas or coal. However, it is possible to obtain the hydrogen portion of the synthesis gas via electrolysis, as well as the carbon monoxide by collecting it from a a biomass, factory emissions or a geothermal borehole.

When methanol is produced by utilizing renewable sources such as biomass, and/or if the power used in the process comes from renewable energy, the product is called green methanol or renewable methanol. In Iceland, the company Carbon Recycling International (CRI) is currently constructing an industrial plant for producing one such type of green methanol.

CRI will produce methanol by utilizing carbon dioxide from a geothermal plant, energy from renewable geothermal sources, and fresh water. It is not yet clear if this Icelandic green methanol will be blended in low quantities (maximum of three percent) in gasoline, used as high-methanol blend by flex-fuel vehicles, or simply exported. CRI has also launched a feasibility study with the Icelandic public waste firm Sorpa on making green methanol from household waste that would normally go to landfill.

Methanol production by CRI can be related to the ideas of Nobel-prize winning chemist George Olah, who has introduced the possibility replacing fossil fuels with methanol rather than the more highly publicized hydrogen or ethanol. Unlike hydrogen, methanol can be transported and distributed via existing gasoline infrastructure. CRI’s geothermal-connected plant in Svartsengi, Iceland, goes by the name the George Olah Renewable Methanol Plant.

Another option for utilization of methanol as fuel is to transform the methanol into other fuels, such a Dimethyl Ether (DME). DME is a colorless gas which can be used as a fuel in lightly modified diesel engines. DME is usually produced from synthesis gas,  a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. It is also possible to produce DME from carbon dioxide and hydrogen; the first steps of producing DME are the same as for producing methanol.

In recent years, production of DME by utilizing renewable energy has been under consideration by Icelandic industrial companies and public authorities. In a recent feasibility study such a production was believed to be very expensive. Thus, DME production would not to be able to compete with fossil fuels unless the production would enjoy financial support, for example in the form of governmental incentives.