What does a poisonous alcohol have to do with decarbonisation?

Also called “wood alcohol”, you probably know methanol best as the poisonous younger sibling of the much more drinkable ethanol.

But it might be one of the biggest keys to helping a huge, and heavily polluting industry, become clean – or even carbon-negative.

The global industrial chemical industry is currently responsible for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of these emissions don’t come from energy usage, but from producing – and incinerating, at end-of-life – other materials, that then feed into dozens of different sectors like healthcare, agriculture and construction. This makes it a tough industry to decarbonise.

In September, a report from the University of Tokyo, and consultancy company Systemiq, detailed the technologies, substances and processes that were going to help the global chemical industry get to net zero emissions by 2050.

The biggest substance to watch for is ammonia: a crucial agricultural chemical which can also store renewable energy in the form of hydrogen.

The second biggest hitter, according to the researchers, might be methanol. The researchers predict that ammonia demand will be five times larger than current amounts by 2050, and methanol demand will be four times its current size.

Methanol molecule: black ball connected to a red ball, black ball has three white balls connected to it and red ball has one white ball connected to it
The methanol molecule: carbon in black, hydrogen in white, oxygen in red. Credit: Benjah-bmm27 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1999966

With a chemical formula of CH3OH, methanol is the simplest form of alcohol – and a useful precursor to a range of other carbon-based products.

“Versatility of methanol is probably the key reason why we think it’s going to play a major role,” says report co-author Daisuke Kanazawa, a collaborative researcher at the Centre for Global Commons in the University of Tokyo, Japan.

Methanol is easy to make into olefins, which are a key feedstock for polymers that then become plastics, resins, fibres and other materials – although the end-of-life for many of these products is becoming an increasing source of concern.

Methanol can also be made into a variety of other carbon-based chemical feedstocks.

It’s easy to ship and easy to make, too – with 102 million tonnes produced in 2020. But the vast majority of methanol is made from fossil fuels – for now.

Methanol plant showing fires and black pipes
A methanol plant and oil wells on Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf, 13 March 2000. Credit: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

“What’s making the chemical industry’s decarbonisation more difficult than other industries is most of its products contain carbon,” says Kanazawa.

“So that means that you have to change the feedstock from a fossil base to something else.”

This is the other reason the researchers think methanol will be the key to decarbonisation: you can make it out of “something else”.

“Recycled materials can be turned into methanol, bio-based feedstock can be turned into methanol, CO2 can be turned into methanol,” says Kanazawa.

It even has the potential to be a carbon-negative product: CO2 captured from greenhouse gas sources, or directly from the atmosphere, could be turned into methanol.

According to Kanazawa, the energy efficiency and overall efficiency of carbon capture needs to be improved to make this viable.

More on methanol: How the critical chemical industry wins net zero by 2050

But more importantly, hydrogen, the other key ingredient needed to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into methanol (CH3OH), must become cheaper to make cleanly.

“That will be the main driver of reducing the production cost of methanol from CO2,” he says.

Because green hydrogen shows promise as a way to store and transport renewable energy (and ammonia is drawing interest partly as a way to store and transport hydrogen, as well as perhaps being burned directly as a fuel source), there’s plenty of interest in getting better at it – particularly in places with abundant solar energy.

“It will become much more available in countries like Australia, or in the Middle East,” says Kanazawa.

Electrolysis – the way to make green hydrogen – still needs work before it’s competitive, alongside the plummeting cost of renewables.

“The bigger picture is the chemical industry needs to change,” says Kanazawa.

He says that brand owners and downstream consumers, in the interests of reducing their scope 3 emissions, are gradually putting more pressure on the industry to shift away from fossil-based sources.

“So the long-term future is clear – the chemical industry needs to shift its feedstock – but short-term, it’s not so clear. No one exactly knows when the tipping point will arrive,” says Kanazawa.

“It’s really in the hands of the leaders in the chemical industry to change from the fossil-based production today, to the methanol-based production tomorrow.”

Please login to favourite this article.