Monday, January 14, 2008

Methanol Economy

We have posted extensively on bio diesel oil production from an algae feedstock. Its allure comes from the ability to generate very high yields on a sqare foot basis. This is rather critical for a transportation fuel where most proposed sources cannot hope to supplant fossil fuel demand.

I have also posted briefly on ethanol showing that we are dealing with the same trap. The reality is that only the USA and Brazil can hope to exploit crop sources for ethanol in a meaningful manner. And even then, gasohol is a ten percent blend of gasoline and ethanol. This is not much of an improvement.

We have not talked about methanol. Methanol is good old methyl alcohol and also makes a high quality fuel. It is also safer and more benign that gasoline. More importantly there are multiple processes for the conversion of various feed stocks into methanol. It is safe to say that the high quality fuel of the future will be methanol. It will act as a feedstock to the petrochemical industry.

A review of the literature shows us that it is possible to convert any carbon based feedstock into methanol with a moderate consumption of energy. The easiest method of course is to reform the bio mass to produce methane and CO2, which is then used to produce methanol.

Today most methanol is produced by the conversion of methane in areas with a natural gas surplus such as Saudi Arabia, as a feedstock for the petrochemical industry. And this begs the next question. Methanol is obviously too valuable to be extensively used as fuel and the auto racing industry which is now using it exclusively really does not count. Methanol is also a key feedstock in the production of synthetic hydrocarbons.

The whole problem with methanol is that it needs a large integrated industrial plant to produce the volumes needed for the transportation industry and this market is simply not yet attractive enough. It appears that society will have to make a conscious effort to establish a methanol economy to replace our current hydrocarbon economy. That it can be done is a given with known technology. We have to learn to view all available waste organic streams as we currently view oil reservoirs. A bit of a challenge when there are so many options and so much related engineering.

Our civilization is a past master at solving one difficult problem at a time. The problem with methanol is that its production is a multi step process that needs to be high yield. The engineering problem encourages very large plants. Been able to replicate this type of solution for processing bio mass runs into the problem of scale and feedstock assemblage.

So the problem becomes something very different. Is it possible to develop a ten ton batch plant that converts any biomass into methanol on site? This is the same problem we had with biochar production. If that could be done, then we have a way of converting waste organics into a shippable fuel that would need little additional processing if any.

We can now understand why methanol is not common fuel today. It makes no sense to convert hydrocarbons into another type of fuel unless it is absolutely necessary. And the conversion of organic waste into fuel is possible only if we can reduce the operating scale to the scale of the organic waste industry. Otherwise we will be hauling massive amounts of feedstock around the country.

If we actually pursue this option, I think that a subsidy for this type of small scale methanol production is fully justified to encourage the establishment and growth of the industry, if it can be done at all. Otherwise no one can do it in the face of methanol dumping by the oil industry.

This also links into the need to properly create an economic model for the proper maintenance of woodlands and could easily be part of the same dollar if we are really lucky.

Extraction of waste wood is necessary and conversion to methanol is a superior solution to simple reduction to bio char which is a less than satisfactory practice. It will take an expensive piece of hardware, although some shipping will be possible.

1 comment:

Jkirk3279 said...

Methanol can be produced from biomass: coppice* planting of Poplar or Black Locust trees makes a good fuel source.

The process is called "gasification" and requires burning of the biomass in a oxygen depleted environment.

Some of the biomass is burned outright to provide the heat necessary.

The rest is burned via starved air combustion, and the exhaust gasses are typically drawn down through a bed of glowing char.

The traces of water vapor in the exhaust react chemically with the glowing char and disassociate into H2 gas and oxygen.

The oxygen reacts instantly with the hot carbon and forms Carbon Monoxide, a burnable gas.

So the end product is called "Producer gas" and is composed of H2 and CO with a little leftover CO2 and of course, nitrogen from the atmosphere.

It burns pretty well.

This producer gas can be dual-fueled in Diesel engines to generate electricity or fed into carburated gasoline engines to get 2/3rds the rated horsepower of gasoline to provide electricity and heat generation.

If you start the process with pure O2, however, you get a much better output, called Synthesis gas.

Synthesis gas can be converted to methane at standard pressures with an iron oxide catalyst.

Or if you tool up a bit to use higher temperatures and pressures with a Cobalt catalyst, you can produce ...

...drumroll please ....


And the Crowd Goes Wild ! (cheering sounds in the distance).

*So, to re-cap: you plant fast-growing trees on marginal land, areas where erosion, flooding and/or droughts are a real problem.

Then you come back after the trees are established and cut them off at a uniform height.

The trees will sprout suckers from the stumps and you'll soon have a forest of suckers.

The roots of the trees recover from the stress, and then you come through and mow down the suckers again.

This can be done for centuries, and has, in areas of England where clear-cutting old-growth trees was prohibited.

The advantages: you get a fairly steady supply of uniform diameter wood chunks, from land that isn't conducive to farming cereal grains.

The foliage from the young suckers can sometimes be used as cattle feed.

The land ends up with deep root systems tying down the soil against erosion AND flooding.

And of course, once you calculate the huge mass of tree roots per acre, you get to claim that biomass as a carbon credit.

A Federal incentive program to support coppice farming in the Mississippi delta could solve two problems at once: flood remediation and economic incentive to help rebuild the shattered local economy after Hurricane Katrina.