Could methanol be the fuel of the future?

Methanol could very well be a viable alternative fuel in the near future, thanks to research by an international team of scientists from the Technical University of Denmark, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University in California.

They have discovered a previously unknown nickel-gallium catalyst that changes carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methanol with less “side-products” than the usual catalyst. 

Their complete findings were just published in a recent online edition of the journal Nature Chemistry.

“Methanol is processed in huge factories at very high pressures using hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide from natural gas,” said Felix Studt, a staff scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California.” The purpose of the research team’s work is to find something that could be used to produce “methanol from clean sources under low-pressure conditions while generating low amounts of carbon monoxide.”

Their first step was to learn everything about methanol synthesis. Once they understood it at the molecular level, they were ready to move. 

They started to search for a new catalyst with which they synthesize methanol at low pressures utilizing only carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Through a series of tests they found that the compound nickel-gallium worked best.

It was at this point that the research team at the Technical University of Denmark took the reins. The Danish scientists set themselves to the task of synthesizing gallium and nickel into “a solid catalyst.” 

They next determined through a series of tests that nickel-gallium catalyst created more methanol than the more common copper-zinc-aluminum catalyst and resulted in significantly less carbon monoxide byproduct.

Ib Chorkendorff from the Technical University of Denmark explained: “You want to make methanol, not carbon monoxide. You also want a catalyst that is stable and does not decompose.

“The lab tests showed that nickel-gallium is, in fact, a very stable solid.”

Co-author Jens Norskov, a professor of chemical engineering at the Stanford University added: “Eventually we would also like to make higher alcohols, such as ethanol and propanol, which, unlike methanol, can be directly added to gasoline today.” 

The team hopes to eventually “a large-scale manufacturing process” which would be both “non-polluting and carbon neutral using clean hydrogen”.