UOP LLC, a Honeywell (NYSE: HON) company, announced that it will partner with the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute to develop and commercialize new technology to transform carbon dioxide into clean-burning alternative fuels.
USC developed fundamental chemistry to transform carbon dioxide to methanol or dimethyl ether, two potentially cleaner-burning alternatives to traditional transportation fuels, thereby reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas known to contribute to global warming.
This agreement could pave the way toward the practical implementation of the “Methanol Economy™, a concept that involves the production and use of methanol on a massive scale. Pioneered by USC Nobel Laureate George A. Olah, the Methanol Economy™ is a conceptualized future economy in which methanol will increasingly supplement fossil fuels.
“UOP already has commercial technology that uses methanol as a key intermediate in petrochemicals production. We believe methanol can also be a viable option for transportation fuels in the future. The partnership between UOP and USC is aimed at achieving the breakthroughs needed to make this happen.”
-- UOP President and CEO Carlos A. Cabrera
Methanol (or methyl alcohol, CH3OH) is a light, colorless, flammable liquid frequently used to produce other intermediate chemicals, which are then used to produce products like plastics, plywood and paints. Methanol is liquid at normal temperatures, allowing it to be stored easily. It is easy to reform into hydrogen or dimethyl ether, the latter of which is a diesel fuel, making it a viable alternative fuel source. It is a superb fuel in combustion engines and fuel cells and is now used on a limited basis as a fuel for internal combustion engines.
The agreement grants UOP exclusive access rights for commercialization of technology and intellectual property developed by USC researchers for production of methanol, dimethyl ether and other chemicals from undesirable carbon dioxide. UOP and USC will jointly work on development for a commercially viable process.
A Chemical & Engineering News article sheds some more light on the uses and production of methanol from CO2:
As an automotive fuel, methanol initially looks unpromising—its energy content, 64,500 Btu per gal, is about half that of gasoline. The values for gasoline and ethanol are 124,800 Btu per gal and 76,500 Btu per gal, respectively. Also, methanol is toxic when ingested. Similar to ethanol, it is corrosive to current gas tank liners and pipeline seals and gaskets.
On the positive side, the costs to adapt current infrastructure to accommodate methanol would be similar to those for ethanol and far less onerous than developing an infrastructure to compress and transport hydrogen or liquefied natural gas. Methanol burns cleanly, producing CO2 but eliminating other products of gasoline combustion such as benzene and particulate emissions. Methanol is harder to ignite than gasoline and burns cooler, making it less of a fire hazard. It's also miscible in water, and would likely dilute and biodegrade in a spill. . . .
The direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC), developed by researchers at USC-Loker and California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is another promising design. With a platinum-ruthenium catalyst at the anode and platinum at the cathode, the fuel cell overall consumes methanol and oxygen to produce CO2, H2O, and electricity.
DMFCs have been hampered by low efficiency levels relating to methanol's ability to permeate of the commercial Nafion membrane. However, USC-Loker researchers have improved efficiencies by developing a proprietary membrane made of polystyrene sulfonic acid cross-linked within a poly(vinylidene fluoride) matrix. DMFC technology is still considered too expensive to implement in vehicles but instead is being developed to power portable electronics. In October, Toshiba unveiled a DMFC-powered multimedia player that the company says runs for 10 hours on 10 mL of methanol. . . .
One of the downsides of producing methanol from coal or natural gas is that the processes produce CO2. Generally companies don't yet have a concrete plan for dealing with CO2 emissions. Says Dow's Chen, "CO2 is one of the most important topics we'll look at in the feasibility study" of the coal-to-methanol-to-olefins facility. He adds, "we'll do everything we can to find a solution, but what the outcome will be is difficult to say."
Aside from the usual options of funneling CO2 into oil wells or sequestering it underground, several groups are investigating using CO2 to make commodity chemicals, fuels, and materials.
USC's Olah has a particularly ambitious proposal: use it CO2 to make more methanol.
In one incarnation, CO2 would be captured from industrial flue gases at fossil-fuel-burning plants and cement factories. In another, engineers would find ways to absorb CO2 from the air, dialing back the atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas.
Olah proposes two CO2-to-methanol reactions. One is to hydrogenate CO2 with H2 produced from water electrolysis. The second path to methanol is to reduce CO2 electrochemically. Both pathways require energy, but that energy could come from a renewable source such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric power; hydrogen could also come from microbial fuel cells fed with biomass. Methanol would thus provide a means for storing energy from renewable sources for use at nighttime or during overcast or windless days.