From paints and plastics, furniture and carpeting, to car parts and windshield wash fluid, methanol is a chemical building block used in making hundreds of products that touch our daily lives. Methanol is also an emerging energy fuel for running our cars, trucks, buses, and even electric power turbines. Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, is the simplest of all alcohols with the chemical formula CH3OH.
Methanol is a light, colorless, flammable liquid at room temperature, and contains less carbon and more hydrogen than any other liquid fuel. It is a stable biodegradable chemical that is produced and shipped around the globe every day for a number of industrial and commercial applications. Methanol occurs naturally in the environment, and quickly breaks down in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions.
The methanol industry spans the entire globe, with production in Asia, North and South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Worldwide, over 100 methanol plants have a combined production capacity of about 100 million metric tons (33 billion gallons or 125 billion liters), and each day more than 180,000 tons of methanol is used as a chemical feedstock or as a transportation fuel (60 million gallons or 225 million liters). The global methanol industry generates $36 billion in economic activity each year, while creating over 100,000 jobs around the globe.
This simple alcohol can be made from virtually anything that is, or ever was, a plant. This includes common fossil fuels – like natural gas and coal – and renewable resources like biomass, landfill gas, and even power plant emissions and CO2 from the atmosphere. With its diversity of production feedstocks and array of applications, it’s no wonder that methanol has been one of the world’s most widely used industrial chemicals since the 1800s.
How is Methanol Made?
Methanol can be made from a wide array of feedstocks, making it one of the most flexible chemical commodities and energy sources available today. To make methanol, you need first to create synthesis gas, which has carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas as its main components.
While natural gas is most often used in the global economy, methanol has the distinct advantage of ‘polygeneration’ – whereby methanol can be made from any resource that can be converted first into synthesis gas. Through gasification, synthesis gas can be produced from anything that is or ever was a plant. This includes biomass, agricultural and timber waste, solid municipal waste, and a number of other feedstocks.
In a typical plant, methanol production is carried out in two steps. The first step is to convert the feedstock natural gas into a synthesis gas stream consisting of CO, CO2, H2O and hydrogen. This is usually accomplished by the catalytic reforming of feed gas and steam. Partial oxidation is another possible route. The second step is the catalytic synthesis of methanol from the synthesis gas. Each of these steps can be carried out in a number of ways and various technologies offer a spectrum of possibilities which may be most suitable for any desired application.
Applications for Methanol
Methanol is one of the most versatile compounds developed and is the basis for hundreds of chemicals, thousands of products that touch our daily lives, and is second in the world in amount shipped and transported around the globe every year. A truly global commodity, methanol is a key component of modern life and new applications are paving the way forward to innovation.
Applications for Pure Methanol
While numerous applications transform methanol into vital products and commodities that drive modern life, methanol is also used on its own in a number of applications.
Transportation Fuel – Methanol is the most basic alcohol. It is easy to transport, readily available, and has a high octane rating that allows for superior vehicle performance compared to gasoline. Many countries have adopted or are seeking to expand methanol fueling programs, and it is the fastest growing segment of the methanol marketplace today. This is driven in large part by methanol’s low price compared to gasoline or ethanol, and the very small incremental cost to modify current vehicles to run on blends of methanol fuel. Methanol also produces much less toxic emissions than reformulated gasoline, with less particulate matter and smog forming emissions.
Wastewater Denitrification – Methanol is also used by municipal and private wastewater treatment facilities to aid in the removal of nitrogen from effluent streams. As wastewater is collected in a treatment facility, it contains high levels of ammonia. Through a bacterial degradation process this ammonia is converted into nitrate. If discharged into the environment, the nutrient rich nitrate in sewage effluent can have a devastating effect on water ecosystems – creating miles long algae blooms that sap oxygen and sunlight from aquatic life. Methanol, which quickly biodegrades, is a cost-effective way to help revitalize waterways tainted by the effects of nitrates.
Fuel Cell Hydrogen Carrier – Methanol is used as a key component in the development of different types of fuel cells – which are quickly expanding to play a larger role in our energy economy. From large-scale fuel cells to power vehicles or provide back-up power to remote equipment, to portable fuel cells for electronics and personal use, methanol is an ideal hydrogen carrier. With a chemical formula of CH3OH, has more hydrogen atoms in each gallon than any other liquid that is stable in normal conditions.
Biodiesel Transesterification – In the process of making biodiesel fuel, methanol is used as a key component in a process called transesterification – to put it simply, methanol is used to convert the triglycerides in different types of oils into usable biodiesel fuel. The transesterification process reacts methanol with the triglyceride oils contained in vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled greases, forming fatty acid alkyl esters (biodiesel) and the byproduct glycerin. Biodiesel production continues to grow around the globe, with everything from large-scale commercial operations to smaller, backyard blenders mixing this environmentally-friendly fuel for everyday use in diesel engines.
Electricity Generation – Different companies are also exploring the use of methanol to drive turbines to create electricity. There are a number of projects currently underway that are using methanol as the fuel source to create steam to drive turbines – which is an excellent option for areas rich in resources other than traditional electricity sources.
Methanol is a key component of hundreds of chemicals that are integral parts of our daily lives. Methanol is most often converted into formaldehyde, acetic acid and olefins – all basic chemical building blocks for a number of common products. There are a number of products that are developed from these materials, too many to list all on this page, but needless to say methanol is all around us and is a critical component of modern life.
Here are just some types of materials that are made from methanol:
- Synthetic fibers
- Magnetic film
- Safety glass laminate
- Windshield washer fluid
- Particle board
- Pigments and dyes
There are thousands more products that also touch our daily lives in which methanol is a key component.
Methanol to Olefins
The Methanol to Hydrocarbons process was discovered in 1977. This process is used to convert methanol to products such as olefins and gasoline. The methanol can first be obtained from coal or natural gas. In the Methanol to Olefins (MTO) process, the methanol is then converted to olefins such as ethylene and propylene. The olefins can be reacted to produce polyolefins, which are used to make many plastic materials.
For more information about methanol, please visit the Methanol Institute at http://www.methanol.org/
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