The rise, rise, rise of bio-methanol for fuels and chemical markets

January 24, 2018 |

We reported last week on the Silva Green Fuels JV between Sweden’s Södra and Norway’s Statkraft, using Steeper Energy technology to produce drop-in advanced biofuels in Norway.

And we reported the stunning news this week that Enerkem signed an agreement with Sinobioway Group worth over C$125 million in the form of equity investment in Enerkem Inc., future licenses, equipment manufacturing and sales, as well as for the creation of a major joint venture that will lead the construction of over 100 Enerkem state-of-the-art facilities in China by 2035. The announcement was made in the presence of the Premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard, during his China trade mission.

What’s the intersection between the two? The clearest intersecting theme is bio-methanol. Let’s see why.

For one, Södra has much more going on than Silva, and we reported on a major development in December when we related that Södra will invest more than $12.5 million in the production of biomethanol, a sustainable fuel from forest raw material. The project commenced in autumn 2017 and is scheduled to be ready for operation by spring 2019. The aim is to produce 5,000 tonnes of biomethanol per year at the new facility to be situated at Södra’s pulp mill at Mönsterås. The long-term aim is to further increase production for passenger, truck and ship transport.

Södra to invest $12.5 million to produce biomethanol from forestry waste

Methanol indeed is in the news. Nobel winner George Olah’s vision of a Methanol Economy has not yet come to pass, but there’s been striking technical advance and now countries are waking up to the potential for a meaningful supply of methanol to meet transportation fuel mandates, or even to pursue green chemistry.

In December, we passed on a report from Autocar India that, in light of the difficulty for sugar mills to supply required volumes for the 10% ethanol-blending mandate,  the Indian national government announced it would allow up to 15% blending of coal-based methanol in an effort to reduce fuel costs. Ethanol and methanol can be blended together and then blended into petrol, which is likely to be done in India though the ratio of either blendstock isn’t clear.

India looks to 15% methanol blending to help offset lack of ethanol

But there are some striking technologies to make methanol from biomass, and the best known to Digest readers is doubtless the Enerkem 10 million gallon MSW-to-ethanol plant in Edmonton, Alberta — which begins first with the production of methanol and then up-converts that alcohol to ethanol to capture higher value RINs and serve US and Canadian transportation fuel markets.

Byogy also has a technology for upgrading methanol into renewable jet fuel, and you can see more about that in: Any alcohol into any drop-in fuel: The Digest’s 2017 Multi-Slide Guide to Byogy Renewables, which is here.

Enerkem is is an expansionary mood. We reported in late 2016 that a partnership comprised of AkzoNobel, Van Gansewinkel, Air Liquide, AVR and Enerkem is looking to build its waste-to-chemicals plant in Rotterdam in collaboration with the Port of Rotterdam, the City of Rotterdam, the province of South Holland and InnovationQuarter.

The new chemical plant will use Enerkem’s technology to convert residual waste into methanol, a raw material used in the chemical industry. The methanol will then be converted into chemicals such as acetic acid (e.g., for fibers and adhesives), thickening agents and dimethyl ether (clean propellant gases). These chemicals are currently produced almost entirely from fossil fuels. The planned facility will therefore provide a sustainable alternative by producing a renewable chemical and will represent a significant step toward a sustainable and circular approach to waste management in Rotterdam.

Enerkem aims for Rottterdam with latest waste-to-methanol plant 

Among the lesser known entries, but also well along and fascinating in its own right, is Carbon Recycling, which operates the world’s only industrial scaled renewable methanol using CO2 as a feedstock. The CO2 is sourced from a local geothermal plant, and the hydrogen is generated in a process of electrolysis. In 2015 CRI expanded the plant from a capacity of 1.3 million liters per year to more than 5 million liters a year, and recycle about 5.5 tons of CO2 per annum. More on that plant here.

According to an independent audit by SGS Germany, the use of renewable methanol from the plant releases 90% less CO2 than the use of a comparable amount of energy from fossil fuels.

Carbon Recycling has commenced market deployment of its technology and intend to build more plants in 2018, presumably the first projects outside of Iceland will be implemented in China, which has a robust methanol (M15 blend) transportation fuel market and has set the ambitious goal of reducing CO2 emission per unit of GDP by 40% before 2020. China has vowed to increase the share of non-fossil fuel usage by 15% over the same time period. Accordingly, Geely Holdings, Zixin Industrial Co and CRI formed a Shanghai-based joint venture last September under the name CRI Ji Xin, which will handle all sales and marketing in China.

How does CRI’s fuel perform in vehicles? For the last 18 months, a fleet of six methanol powered Geely Emgrand cars have been undergoing rigorous real world testing in Iceland. Geely Auto’s Emgrand M100, the world’s first mass produced methanol vehicles have been operated by Carbon Recycling International (CRI) on Icelandic roads. The cars were driven over 150,000 kilometers over an 18 month period. Study participants reported virtually no difference in driving experience compared to regular gasoline or diesel fueled cars.

The Emgrand M100 is a methanol variant of the best-selling domestic sedan in China, the Emgrand 7 with average sales of over 20,000 units per month. Geely Auto has been a long term pioneer of methanol vehicles in the Chinese market and has worked closely with Carbon Recycling International to make the road test a reality. The methanol variant of the Emgrand 7 features a 1.8L engine which can run on both methanol and gasoline. The version used in the fleet test has a 50 liter methanol tank as well as a 10 liter gasoline tank. The methanol powered car starts with fuel from the gasoline tank and automatically switches to methanol once a preset temperature has been reached in the engine. The switch from gasoline to methanol is completely seamless. A two-tank design was used to avoid any problems during cold starts.

Renewable methanol for chemistry


Here’s a look from Enerkem at methanol’s substantive promise as a bio-based chemical intermediate.

Methanol as a chemical platform: The Digest’s 2016 Multi-Slide Guide to Enerkem

Methanol as a chemical platform: The Digest’s 2016 Multi-Slide Guide to Enerkem

Thought Leadership on Methanol and Bio-economy

Not long ago in The Digest, industry guru Larry Bauer penned a thought leadership column titled “Methanol and Bio-economy: Now and the Future,” and you can read that here. Larry will be on-stage at the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference and we’ll be looking forward to his latest thought’s on methanol’s potential.

Methanol and Bio-economy: Now and the Future

The Bottom Line

You don’t have to be just a coal or natural gas enthusiast any longer to see opportunity in methanol. It is unlikely, owing to fuel handling and safety concerns, that we’ll see much methanol deployed for transport fuel outside of Asia any time soon, but China and India are monster markets for fans of M15 and other blends. CRI definitely has a step on the competition, in terms of bringing technology to scale.

For the North American and European markets, we can expect to see more projects aimed at methanol as a chemical intermediate springing up — and especially watch Enerkem and Origin Materials in this respect.

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