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Here's where we open up discussion on key issues - and we've started with climate change and energy.

Could methanol be the fuel of the future?

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Alternative energy storage

by Vince Burton - 16:17 on 12 December 2007

It is a little disappointing to see so many letters in the newspapers presenting a “can’t do” attitude when discussing renewable energy, particularly with respect to the intermittent nature of wind power.   A recent letter highlighted that energy storage was essential and that pumped storage is a possibility but the capacity required meant that this would be even more intrusive on the landscape than the wind turbines.   So the conclusion was reached that this particular solution is not viable.

Fortunately, researchers around the world, if not in Scotland, are tackling the problem. We have heard about the “hydrogen economy” but this has gone rather quiet as the volumetric and transport problems of hydrogen have become understood by politicians.   However, there is at least one other storage solution being investigated and that is methanol.  This alcohol is liquid at room temperature, is easily transported and is already used to fuel high performance engines.  It is also being used in fuel cells.

According to chemist and Nobel Prize winner Professor George Olah, it is possible to combine carbon dioxide with hydrogen using a catalytic converter to directly produce methanol.  Researchers in the USA, Japan and elsewhere are currently searching out the most effective catalysts with aim of giving birth to the “methanol economy”.

The hydrogen required can be produced by electrolysis, wherever we have a source of electricity.  Perhaps this might be from wind, solar cells or possibly waste or fossil fueled generators.  The CO2, as we now know, is everywhere in the atmosphere, as well as in power station flues and can be “scrubbed” using known chemistry.  Admittedly, atmospheric scrubbers will be large but will need far less area than that required for the matching amount hydrogen producing wind turbines.

Note that the process is essentially neutral in CO2 emissions.  The CO2 released to the atmosphere when the “fuel” burns is exactly equal to that extracted to make the methanol.  The methanol is only a transporter of the energy introduced by the electric power source.

In my imagination I can see the oil extracting industry of the North Sea being replaced by chemical plant platforms surrounded by wind farms and scrubbers collectively producing methanol.  This would be pumped to the mainland for storage and distribution using the current pipe network.  The potential also exists for producing methanol on a local, or even domestic scale.

At the moment this is a theoretical solution to a very difficult problem.   If Scotland is really to become the much vaunted “world leader” in alternative energy the people of Scotland must look more widely at the possibilities and adopt a “can do” attitude.


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