With the government interested in developing a domestic methanol economy, India embarked on the road to a greener future in 2016. Methanol was identified as a strategic energy product that can be produced from a variety of indigenous resources to reduce the country’s
on imported energy sources, in the spirit of Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan. Fast forward to the present, major announcements were made in 2021 about India’s goal to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2070 and about the ambitious National Hydrogen Energy Mission. More so than ever, it is now imperative that India develops its methanol economy.
The crossroads analogy is used for methanol in future energy landscapes, as it represents the convergence of multiple economic sectors, value chains, and businesses that could benefit from its production and utilisation. India has access to a wide variety of renewable feedstocks and there are many economic sectors that will benefit from their utilisation in the sustainable production of methanol. The agricultural industry will be able to place an economic value on agricultural waste, public utilities will be able to encourage the recycling and utilisation of MSW, and industry will be able to offset its carbon emissions. The utilisation of renewable feedstocks for methanol production creates economic value from what would normally be deemed waste.
Beyond economic value, it also does accrue societal benefits. Farmers might refrain from burning agricultural waste that leads to air pollution if they were able to fetch economic value for it. Municipalities will benefit from more robust waste management systems. Industries will be able to reduce their carbon footprint. Most importantly, this will encourage cross-sectoral collaboration in the sharing of the costs, risks, opportunities, and economic value associated with renewable methanol projects. An example of such a collaboration is the pact between Greater Noida Industrial Development and NTPC, where will be supplied with the combustible fraction of MSW which will be converted into syngas to produce green power and fuels such as methanol. This will pave the way for more cross-sectoral collaborations in India in the pursuit of green technologies.
What lies on the other side of the crossroads is the opportunity to adopt a wide range of carbon-neutral applications – the road to greener economies. Methanol is widely used as a platform chemical that supports the production of other downstream chemicals such as formaldehyde, acetic acid, and plastics. When renewable methanol is used, it reduces the environmental footprint of the final products that these chemicals are used to produce. Methanol is also widely adopted as a clean-burning fuel across different applications. Inherently, methanol is a clean-burning fuel as it is the simplest alcohol with no carbon-carbon bonds. When sustainable pathways and feedstocks are utilised, methanol offers a roadmap to carbon-neutrality for a range of energy applications.
Methanol is also an efficient hydrogen carrier. It has the highest hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of any liquid fuel. 1 kilogram of methanol contains more hydrogen than 1 kilogram of hydrogen. Infrastructure that is needed to support the commercial adoption of hydrogen as an energy carrier is capital-intensive and will require time to develop. Methanol offers a solution that circumvents the complexity of hydrogen’s logistics to enable the adoption of hydrogen as an energy carrier today. Methanol can leverage existing infrastructure in its storage, transport, and utilisation. When needed, methanol can be reformed at the point of use to produce on-demand hydrogen that will power clean applications. This brings forward the timeline for the adoption of hydrogen technologies while economies invest and construct infrastructure for future hydrogen economies knowing that demand is cultivated today.
The beauty of an energy transition supported by methanol lies in its simplicity. Methanol is liquid at ambient temperature and pressure. It does not require cryogenic or high-pressure systems to support its logistics. As one of the most widely traded chemical commodities for decades, infrastructure supporting the global trade of methanol can be used to support the adoption of methanol as a fuel and hydrogen carrier. Petrol stations and marine fuel bunkering infrastructure can also be repurposed at modest cost to refuel methanol.. To illustrate this, methanol can be stored in an IBC tank that is loaded on a truck bound for remote regions where it can be used as a fuel or reformed into hydrogen to enable the adoption of clean energy. While this demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of transporting methanol, it also sheds light on a greater possibility. The possibility for non-urbanized regions to participate in the energy transition project unhampered by their lack of connectivity.
The adoption of methanol as a fuel for power generation, heat generation, road transport, and marine transport is one that can be accomplished with relative ease as the core of existing technologies can still be utilised after minor modifications. Internal combustion engines, gensets, turbines, boilers, and cookstoves operating on methanol do not differ vastly from their counterparts that rely on liquid fossil fuel. The modifications needed are minor as they address issues such as material compatibility and fuel delivery keeping in mind that these technologies were previously developed for conventional fuels. Methanol is a low-hanging fruit for technology developers, a tweak in their technology platforms will accommodate the utilisation of methanol.
Methanol engines for road and marine transport, gensets, boilers, and cookstoves have been developed and operated commercially. Today, methanol-fueled ships ply major trade routes. Fleets of methanol-enabled road vehicles move people and goods. Methanol boilers are used to warm homes and provide steam for industrial processes. Methanol cookstoves are deployed in residential homes and restaurants to lower indoor air pollution. In no small part, this is possible because end-users are familiar with liquid fuels. There is less resistance to methanol’s adoption as minor modifications needed for existing technologies to be fueled by methanol do not affect their operability.
On the journey to greener futures, the key to accelerating this transition is practicability. Methanol ticks that box. Technologies that support the sustainable production of methanol from renewable feedstocks are available today. Technologies that consume methanol as a low carbon, or carbon-neutral, fuel are ready for deployment. However, countries that venture toward greener economies should also embrace a healthy recognition that costs will be involved.
These added costs are not unique to methanol, they are associated with all vectors of clean energy. Cost should not be viewed as a deterrent, but a recognition that there are gaps in public policy and market mechanisms because institutions and systems that regulate the trade of energy were designed to support the use of fossil fuels. As India ventures forth, these gaps will be plugged. In the meantime, methanol, produced with conventional and renewable feedstocks, provides a practical and viable pathway for India’s journey towards a greener economy.