The green energy transition is like complex highway intersections – multiple in-going roads connect to a wider highway system with many parallel lanes leading toward a common destination – one such lane heading for a carbon neutral future is taken by engines still running on liquid fuels. In Iceland, they make the latter with just electrical power, water and CO2. Geely, Volvo’s Chinese mother company, recently made a substantial investment in the Icelandic fuel production and decided to test some of their new methanol cars there as well. Clean fuels and combustion engines seem to be the strategy. In this report from Iceland you get to see the cars and learn a little about the fuel production on the volcanic island.
No doubt, these days hydrogen and electric cars receive the most hype and attention of press and public. Also known as fuel cell and battery electric vehicles or FCEVs and BEVs. Sure, these technologies will probably at some point dominate land transportation on roads and even some railway routes. Nevertheless, at sea and in the air – fuel cells and batteries are still difficult to spot. Apart from short routes with battery ferries and a few experimental airplanes it is at current state of technologies unthinkable that cargo ships or long-distance airplanes should run on anything else than liquid hydrocarbons in either a combustion engine or a jet turbine.
Hydrocarbons cannot be substituted , yet
So, in order to maintain our ever growing intercontinental transport of goods and people we currently have no options other than hydrocarbons. And yet, to stay within the agreed goals of the Paris accord we cannot afford the continued use of fossil fuels – not even when we limit their use to sea and air transport. What to do? Luckily, we have tools and techniques at hand and we are able to produce both gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons synthetically by various methods and from various feed-stocks. We have become accustomed to hydrocarbon fuels derived from fossil crude oil, natural gas and coal and for almost all transport on land, at sea or in the air these fuels have been gasoline, diesel (including marine heavier variants) and jet fuel.
It’s not scarcity it’s toxicity
Yet in principle an internal combustion engine really doesn’t care what you feed it with as long as it is either a gaseous or liquid fuel that is reasonably energy dense and easily flammable. Fossil fuels are known to fulfil these criteria in a superior way and we are of course only going through this global energy transition because they have some adverse properties such as being environmentally damaging chemicals in themselves and with post combustion emissions of toxins and greenhouse gases causing pollution and global warming. If those side effects were missing the world could continue on fossil fuels for centuries. Contrary to what was believed until recent time, fossil hydrocarbons are not in scarcity.
Green transition slow in transportation sectors
Yet, we now know for a fact that it is not going to work for us to keep on with them. So, the various energy sectors at least in many Western countries have gone through a transition from coal fired power plants to renewable energy production from wind, sun or biomass. So far, we haven’t really had any alternatives to hydrocarbons in the transportation sector, although now electric cars seem to win market shares. Still, on a global scale it is but a few per cent of the new sales that are electric cars.
Many experts say it will last more than 50 years before the last car with an internal combustion engine has left the road as a daily driver.
In that scenario of millions and millions of cars and trucks still running on liquid hydrocarbons for decades to come plus vessels at sea and in the air, it is but a beautiful dream to see roads, sea- and airways full of delightful machines moving in three dimensions emitting nothing or just water vapor.
Clean fuels are here
As mentioned above internal combustion engines and to some extent jet turbines have no prejudice towards fuels if they are homogeneous, free from obstructive and corrosive matter, energy dense and combustible in the specific environment they operate.
What we, the Earth and its other inhabitants want are fuels that do not pollute, do not compete with food or land use and do not contribute to global warming. That’s about it.
Well, it’s not rocket science to produce a non-polluting, carbon neutral fuel – it’s chemistry yes, but not so much more than that. The most elementary fuel we can make is hydrogen, and it can work in a conventional combustion engine as well as a jet turbine. There is a problem with the energy density however, at atmospheric pressure it takes up a lot of space which makes it impractical. With current technologies, it can comfortably be compressed up to 700 bars which makes it more practical to carry around in a car’s fuel tank. Still we need a lot of volume compared to a liquid hydrocarbon such as gasoline, diesel, ethanol or methanol or even compared to combustible gases such as methane, propane or butane which liquefies at certain pressures unlike hydrogen.
Hydrogen gains momentum
So far that property of hydrogen has limited its adoption in transportation although several car makers are now releasing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and even heavy-duty trucks. Still, like battery electric vehicles have been around for decades without a real breakthrough it remains to be seen whether hydrogen will become mainstream in the coming decades. An infrastructure for filling is certainly in progress and you should be able to cross most Western countries in a hydrogen car within a few years. Why do liquid fuels still have a relevance then?
Why hydrocarbons still make sense
Obviously for several reasons, the inertia of technology adoption, purchase price of machinery and fuels, operating costs including maintenance, then availability, convenience and of course simply practicality. It might be possible to build an airliner that flies on hydrogen as a fuel, yet many factors such as an extreme operating environment, fuel volume, etc. prohibit practical use of such an airplane. Likewise, a container or chemical tanker ship may also have issues with the size of fuel tanks in order to obtain current ranges.
So many things about liquid fuels still make them superior and probably secure their continued use in multiple applications for decades to come.
So we don’t want to use fossil hydrocarbons but instead hydrocarbons, preferably liquid, that are renewable and carbon neutral. And better yet if those hydrocarbons combust cleanly without toxic emissions and particulate matter.
Complex hydrocarbons have no place in a clean future
Gasoline and diesel, even of biological or synthetic origin, have difficulty with complete/clean combustion because of their chemical properties with carbon to carbon bonds and no inherent oxygen atoms which makes it difficult for them to burn all molecules in a combustion engine cycle. Some molecules of the fuel will remain as soot in the engine exhaust gas. Engine technology refinement, filter technologies as well as fossil fuel development have alleviated these properties significantly in later years, still various toxic gases and particulates remain, especially in diesel engines (do I need to mention the VW scandal?).
In gasoline cars the incomplete combustion problem has been alleviated by blending a so called oxygenator such as ethanol or methanol with the gasoline. Both alcohols are hydrocarbons with oxygen atoms in their chemical structure which help complete the fuel combustion in an engine cycle.
Blame the fuel, not the machine
A lot of ‘combustion engine bashing’ has been going on among what we could call clean future lobbyists. But in fact the internal combustion engine is a versatile power plant both in terms of applications and fuel types. Thus, with only minor changes it can run on a multitude of fuels, pure hydrogen as well as various gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons. And as discussed, we like the latter for their energy density and transportable features.
Therefore, it makes sense, since we will be dependent on combustion engine technologies for a long time, to produce synthetic liquid fuels that are inherently chemically and environmentally safe, and do not have toxic or climate deteriorating effects when used.
As humanity has elevated to present state by mainly three factors: the invention of agriculture, medical science and discovery of fossil fuels it is only natural that we looked to agriculture to satisfy our energy as well as nutritional needs as soon as we realized that fossil fuels are a dead end to the planet’s survival.
Biomass won’t cut it
The use of biomass however is not going to work for us as more than an intermediary step to something that can be scaled to serve our ever-growing needs which land use or ocean use for that matter never can be. We need to tap into the big fusion reactor 150 million kilometres away and start harvesting more of those 1000 Watts radiating in on almost every square meter of the daylight zone.
The green transition is the agricultural revolution for energy
Then we need chemistry – we need to do with the energy sector what we did with agriculture some 10.000 years ago – we need to plant and harvest, i.e. set up solar panels and wind turbines and then we need to convert what we do not use right away to a chemical substance which can be derived of its energy content at a later point of time – like the agricultural grain storage.
Methanol is liquid hydrogen (with a little oxygen and carbon)
With the formula CH3OH methanol is the most logical and simple chemical liquid storage component we have – it can be produced from a variety of feed-stocks including ones of biological origin, yet the most interesting one is the synthesis of pure hydrogen and carbon dioxide since it is a simple process involving only electrolyzation of water and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide we have in copious amounts in many places both naturally occurring and man-made.
Making green methanol is a turn-key scalable solution today
The Icelanders at Carbon Recycling International did see that about 10 years ago when they established the first methanol pilot plant which later in 2012 was upgraded to commercial scale and today produces around 4000 tonnes of methanol a year. It’s an insignificant amount on a global scale where most methanol is produced from natural gas or coal gasification – not carbon neutral at all.
Yet, the Icelandic plant serves an important purpose as a demonstration site for refinement of production technology and procedures. Their technology and procedures are so matured today that they offer their concept as a licensed turn-key solution to anyone who wants to produce methanol based on a hydrogen and CO2 source. The hydrogen can come from water electrolyzation or an industrial source, the CO2 from a natural geological source or an industrial source. Add electricity and you are up and running with methanol production at virtually any scale.
On longer terms, it will be possible to separate CO2 from atmospheric air and it will be possible to mimic the biological processes where atmospheric CO2 is harvested by plants and released again when plants die and decompose or are eaten directly by other organisms.
Methanol is a versatile fuel
Methanol has many positive features as a fuel, it can be used directly in an internal combustion engine with higher efficiency than other hydrocarbons since it contains oxygen and has a cooling effect on the engine thus reducing wear and tear. The octane rating of methanol is higher than gasoline which means it can be compressed more before ignition thus delivering a longer and more powerful thrust at the cylinder head.
The actual energy content of one litre of methanol is only about half that of gasoline yet measured as delivered effect in the engine it yields more than half the effect because of the higher octane rate as well as its clean burning due to oxygen content. Around 60 percent of the work is obtained from 1 litre of methanol compared to 1 litre of gasoline.
Methanol can also be used as a fuel for a fuel cell producing electrical power either directly in a dedicated fuel cell stack or it can be reformed chemically to hydrogen and CO where the hydrogen is separated to be used in a conventional hydrogen fuel cell stack.
Other advantages of a Methanol Economy are its adaptability to the existing conventional liquid fuel infrastructure practically all existing gas stations can be retrofitted to accommodate methanol as can tanker ships and fuel trucks.
Volvo’s Chinese owner has a strategy for methanol
Chinese car maker Geely (owns Volvo) sees a future for methanol as a transportation fuel and have launched several large-scale projects in Chinese cities with taxis running on methanol and they mass produce a methanol variant of their Emgrand EC7 car, so far for the Chinese market only.
In Iceland as described above a small fleet of six methanol cars is currently tested and used as promotion for the methanol produced by Carbon Recycling International (CRI). When used as a car fuel CRI has branded the methanol as “Vulcanol” and “Liquid Electricity”. The latter referring both to its origin from water electrolyze plus subsequent synthesis facilitated by electrical power as well as its potential to be used in fuel cells to recover the energy stored in the liquid.
A few facts about the methanol production at Carbon Recycling International
CRI was established in Iceland by a group of American and Icelandic entrepreneurs in 2006, with funding from angel investors, from Iceland and the US. Later on equity was raised in Iceland, which enabled us to build the demonstration plant. In 2014 and 2015 Methanex, from Canada and Geely, from China made significant equity investments in CRI which enabled us to increase the production capacity of the plant.
Why is the plant itself named “the George Olah Renewable Methanol Plant”?
George Olah was chemistry professor at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. He won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1994. Around the same time that CRI was being founded he published an influential book, entitled Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, where he proposes methanol as a substitute for oil and distillates, as an energy carrier, for energy from natural gas or renewable sources of electricity. Subsequently, Professor Olah took a seat on our scientific advisory board and we decided to name the demonstrator after him to honour his efforts in promoting methanol as a renewable chemical and fuel. Professor Olah passed away earlier this year at the age of 89.
Where does the electricity used in the production come from?
From the Icelandic grid, which is sourced 70% from hydro and 30% from geothermal power plants.
Where does the CO2 come from?
From the HS Orka geothermal power plant in Svartsengi, which is adjacent to the renewable methanol plant. CO2 is a by-product of geothermal activity, where superheated steam reacts with dissolved carbonates from the bedrock and forms CO2, H2S and other gases. The gas stream is separated from the steam used in the power turbines to generate electricity. Normally the gas is vented to atmosphere. In Svartsengi, about 10% of the total emissions from the power plant are piped to the CRI plant, where we have a system to further separate the CO2 from other gas species. We can then use the pure CO2 as feedstock in our process. This reduces emissions at the power plant. The same amount of CO2 is later released when the methanol is combusted in a car engine – but as the methanol substitutes fossil fuel consumption, no net CO2 emissions are caused by the use of the renewable methanol as a fuel.
How much methanol is produced per day?
We have a production capacity of 10 tons of methanol per day.
What is the conversion efficiency: 1 kWh of electricity generates how much methanol?
Approximately 100 g of methanol. 56 percent of the electrical power used for electrolysis and fuel synthesis is stored as chemical energy in the methanol.
How much CO2/kWh is used to produce 1 ton of methanol?
About 1.4 tons of CO2 and 9-10 MWh of electricity are used to produce 1 ton of methanol.
Who are the main purchasers of your product?
Biodiesel manufacturers in Iceland and Sweden. Methanol is an important ingredient to biodiesel, as it is used to ‘esterify’ vegetable oil or animal fat, i.e. form longer hydrocarbon chains. The methanol is chemically converted in the process, with the fatty acids, into biodiesel and glycerol. Production of 1 ton of biodiesel with this method requires 100 kg of methanol. Substitution of methanol from natural gas with renewable methanol eliminates 10% of the emissions caused by biodiesel per unit energy.
What was the overall idea with establishing CRI? Are there any plans of increasing production capacity in Iceland?
The idea was to build a strong technology company to develop, build and operate renewable methanol production plants, converting CO2 in one step into low carbon footprint methanol using green electricity or other sources of low carbon intensity hydrogen. At the moment, we do not have any plans of increasing production capacity in Iceland, but we are constantly evaluating our strategy, taking into consideration energy and fuel prices as well as the evolution of public policy.
More information: http://carbonrecycling.is
The author of this article wishes to thank Carbon Recycling International for the invitation to the production plant in Iceland and the opportunity of learning more about modern production of methanol based on renewable sources. Any opinions not explicitly stated by those participating in the article, are the author’s own.