It’s very early days but pilot projects for green methanol are underway, explains Gabi Thesing writing for WEF. It’s a low-carbon fuel that can be produced from renewable sources such as biomass or using carbon capture. Compared to traditional fossil fuels it can reduce CO2 emissions by 60-95%, nitrogen oxide by 60-80%, and almost completely eliminate sulphur oxide and particulate matter emissions. Green methanol can be blended with traditional fossil fuels, offering an easier transition for transport and minimising the need for infrastructure upgrades. In China, methanol is being used as a fuel for buses and heavy-duty vehicles. In Sweden, Orsted has started construction of its FlagshipONE plant to produce 50,000 tonnes of e-methanol annually from 2025 for methanol-powered ships. But like most alternative fuels being developed today, it has challenges, says Thesing. Methanol is toxic, flammable, and needs 2.5 times the volume to hold the same energy content as oil. And the green version is significantly more expensive to produce than the fossil equivalent.
As the world continues to grapple with the effects of the climate crisis and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, finding sustainable and low-carbon alternatives to traditional fossil fuels has become a top priority.
The focus has long been on electrification and hydrogen as potential replacements, but in recent years green methanol has re-emerged as a contender.
What is Green Methanol?
Methanol is a colourless liquid mainly used for producing other chemicals such as formaldehyde, acetic acid and plastics. It can be used as a fuel source for engines. Unlike traditional methanol, which is derived from fossil fuels, green methanol is produced from low-carbon sources such as biomass, or via carbon capture.
Compared to conventional fuels, green methanol can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60-95%, reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 60-80%, and almost completely eliminate sulphur oxide and particulate matter emissions, according to the Methanol Institute.
What’s more, green methanol can be blended with traditional gasoline or diesel fuel, offering a seamless transition for vehicle owners and minimising the need for infrastructure upgrades. This makes it an attractive option for countries and industries looking to reduce their carbon footprint without disrupting their current operations.
The production of green methanol also offers a range of environmental benefits. The use of renewable feedstocks means that the carbon emissions associated with its production and combustion are significantly lower compared to traditional methanol or fossil fuels. In addition, green methanol has a lower sulphur content, reducing emissions of sulphur oxides, which contribute to air pollution and acid rain.
Another advantage of green methanol is its versatility. It can be used not only as a transportation fuel but also as a feedstock for the production of other valuable chemicals and materials. This opens up new opportunities for the chemical industry to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and move towards a more sustainable and circular economy.
The market is growing
Green methanol production is still low, with less than 0.2 million tonnes produced annually, versus 98 million tonnes of conventional methanol made from fossil fuels. This is likely to rise to 500 million tonnes by 2050, which would release 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per annum if solely sourced from fossil fuels, according to estimates from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
The market for green methanol is growing though, with several countries and industries recognising its potential. In China, methanol is being used as a fuel for buses and heavy-duty vehicles. While in the maritime sector, methanol is being considered as a potential alternative to traditional bunker fuels. With global shipping responsible for 90% of world trade and 3-4% of greenhouse gas emissions, the sector is under increasing pressure to decarbonise, says the Financial Times.
And it’s not the only industry striving to make the switch – 2022 saw “investments in renewables reaching a record high of $1.3 trillion, a 19% increase from 2021 investment levels and a 70% increase from pre-pandemic levels in 2019,” according to the World Economic Forum’s Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2023 report.
In May, Orsted started construction on its $139m FlagshipONE plant in northern Sweden, which will produce 50,000 tonnes of e-methanol annually from 2025 for a global fleet of methanol-powered ships.
And in February, Canadian maritime company Waterfront Shipping said it carried out the world’s first net-zero transatlantic voyage, using methanol derived from hydrogen as its carbon-neutral fuel.
— Theshipsagent (@theshipsagent) March 2, 2023
Concerns about Green Methanol
Green methanol doesn’t come without complications, however. Firstly, there is the cost issue: renewable methanol production costs are “still significantly higher’’ than those of today’s natural gas- and coal-based methanol production, says IRENA.
Renewable hydrogen-based maritime fuels such as ammonia and methanol will not beat fossil fuels on price until 2040, when capacity starts to catch up, according to one prominent shipping analyst.
Then there is the safety issue. Methanol is toxic, flammable and can be explosive; it must therefore be stored and handled carefully, according to marine insurers UK P&I Club. What’s more, “due to its density and lower heating value, methanol fuel tanks are about 2.5 times larger than oil tanks for the same energy content”.
Despite these obstacles, IRENA still sees green methanol as “one of the easiest-to-implement sustainable alternatives available, especially in the chemical and transport sectors”.
Gabi Thesing writes for the World Economic Forum
This article is republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International Public License