Issue Date: October 2, 2006
A Methanol Proposal
The August shutdown by BP of its huge Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska. Escalating violence and political instability in the Middle East. Another hurricane season brewing in the Caribbean, possibly threatening the oil-rich Gulf Coast.
As never before, it seems, world events conspire to highlight our utter dependence on oil and natural gas. With each new crisis, markets have responded and sent the price per barrel of oil sailing upward. We all pay more at the pump and elsewhere-such as for home heating and cooling. Less obvious costs are the rising prices for consumer goods and pharmaceuticals produced via fossil-fuel products and energy.
Where does it end? Will we run out of oil? What is the path out?
Those are some of the tough, big-picture questions tackled in "Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy" by George Olah, Alain Goeppert, and G. K. Surya Prakash, all of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at the University of Southern California. Their partial solution to fossil-fuel dependence is the development of technology related to methanol energy storage and conversion.
The authors write that methanol "is a convenient, oxygenated liquid hyrdrocarbon that at present is prepared from fossil-fuel-based synthesis gas. Eventually, it will be possible chemically to recycle atmospheric CO2 itself via hydrogenative conversion to methanol. The required hydrogen will be obtained from water (an inexhaustible resource), using any energy source-atomic or renewable energy. In this way, extremely volatile hydrogen gas will be conveniently and safely stored by converting it, with CO2 into liquid methanol."
When I first picked up this book, it looked technical, possibly of interest only to specialists. But then I began reading. Throughout, the text and arguments presented are exceptionally clear and engaging. For anyone interested in the subjects of energy, fossil fuels, alternative fuels, and energy solutions, this book will be a valuable resource.
The authors start with the history of oil and natural gas and then delve into specific fossil fuels and their uses. Photographs and illustrations supplement the text and, even though they are all in black and white, the historical photos especially lend interest and make for an attractive presentation. Pie charts, tables, and maps are presented logically and in a readable manner.
The chapter titled "Diminishing Oil and Gas Reserves" is a sobering read. The authors estimate, for example, that current oil reserves should meet demand for the next 40 years; 60 years for natural gas. And while it is true that there are finite reserves of oil, they write, "this is basically irrelevant because oil extraction will cease long before its actual physical exhaustion. The point that matters is the cost to find and exploit new reserves. When this cost of exploration and exploitation becomes too high, then oil will be replaced by some other source of energy, leaving part of the oil that's left in Earth's crust. The challenge is to find acceptable substitutes before oil becomes so expensive to produce that it would disrupt the economic and social fabric of our society." One wonders how far off that day really might be.
Other chapters in the book cover hydrocarbons, alternative energy, and a critical look at hydrogen and proposals for a hydrogen economy. They discuss President George W. Bush's five-year $1.2 billion push for hydrogen-powered cars by 2020, as well as efforts by the European Union to develop hydrogen fuel cells.
But the authors caution that even with billions of dollars to spend, hydrogen researchers face an uphill battle in tackling the basic problems of safe, high-volume hydrogen storage, distribution, and usage.
The methanol economy, they write, "offers a new way in which convenient and safe reversible energy storage and transportation can be achieved in the form of a simple, easy to handle liquid chemical-methanol. The ready conversion of methanol to synthetic hydrocarbons and their products will ensure that future generations will have access to the essential products and materials that today form an integral part of our life. At the same time, the 'Methanol Economy,' by recycling excess atmospheric CO2, will mitigate one of the major adverse effects on the Earth's climate caused by mankind, namely global warming."
Their argument is worth reading and considering in some detail.
William Schulz is C&EN's news editor and book review editor.
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