The time to move from oil and coal to alternative energies arrived long ago, and yet the majority of countries continue to use them as primary sources of energy and heat. The reason for this lack of change, despite clear consensus among countries that independence from oil proves paramount, stems from the lack of infrastructure and low price of alternatives. Because of lacking infrastructure and present barriers to entry, such as costs and initial capital investments, new energy economies must be employed in the countries of the world in order to make alternative energies cost effective. Although various types of energy economies exist, none rises to the top better than that of methanol. Countries must begin to adopt the use of the methanol economy to curb the out of control production of carbon emissions, to gain independence from foreign petroleum and to fight pollution.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, nuclear reactors first popped up around 1940, with the first fissile U-235 plant, Calder Hill Nuclear Power Station in the UK, first supplying power in 1956. That reactor supplied energy until its decommission the last day of March, 2003. (Brown, 2003) Nuclear power provided the first attempts of humanity to escape from fossil fuels. Before this, only wood and fossil fuels provided energy to the world. Hydroelectricity accounted only for a tiny proportion of the energy production, whereas nuclear rose to the top quickly. Problems quickly arose with this type of energy, however. Multiple accidents occurred over the past decades which have risen fear of atomic energy. Most people are familiar with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, however, small accidents are still happening today. Recently, Three Mile Island again had a small leak during routine maintenance. (Muir & Netter, 2009) In addition, various plants break regulatory guidelines during waste disposal. Under fire for possibly leaking radioactive material into the ground for over 26 years, the Bradwell Nuclear Power Plant in Essex, England might face serious backlash from the public and the Environment Agency of Britain. The agency is attempting to fine the company due to its breech of the Radioactive Substances Act. (“Power station leaked nuclear waste for decades,” 2009) Despite the dangers, however, nuclear power is carbon free, and provides relatively clean and cheap energy. Even though problems arose in Britain before with nuclear energy, the Dounreay power plant, after its decommissioning, became the site for an additional reactor, in addition to a prototype “fast reactor”, in which scientists currently analyze reactor safety and efficiency. (Hibbert, 2008) One way scientists attempt to increase the safety and efficacy of nuclear reactors lies in chemical research. Researchers are developing methods to detect radiation levels outside of nuclear power plants, for example, so as to better protect the safety of the communities near them. Accelerator mass spectrometry only recently has begun to detect levels of the uranium 236 isotope low enough to make detection of radioactive decay outside of nuclear plants possible. (Quinto, et al., 2009) Not only does nuclear power come with inherent risks, but some argue that the power is innately flawed, in that a solution to the problems of waste disposal and processing will never come to realization. In Second Thoughts on Nuclear Energy, Michael Mariotte states vehemently that the risks brought on by the use of nuclear power will never be brought down to absent levels. The problems he mentions, such as disposal and radiation induced cancers, will always be possibilities as long as humanity continues to use nuclear power. (Mariotte, 2009)
Alternative energies other than nuclear energy also exist. Scientists make note of NASA’s use of hydrogen gas to propel rockets to the depths of space for decades now. (Gregoire-Padro, 1998) Hydrogen production in the us is still growing, mostly in part due to its use in chemical synthesis. Scientists are still developing ways to increase the efficiency of hydrogen production. (Rostrup-Nielsen, 2005) Currently, governments and scientists are looking for ways to make this part of an energy economy. An energy economy is a term coined by the Nobel Prize winning scientist George Olah. Hydrogen hold the ability to be central to an economy because it not only can be used in cars and power plants, but can also be used to synthesize chemicals. The mixing of hydrogen gas with oxygen gas produces enough energy to move cars and power buildings, leaving only water as a byproduct. This, of course, poses the question, “Why haven’t we switched over to this type of economy?” The answer to this is simple. We lack the technology and infrastructure. Production of hydrogen is simple enough, but takes a great amount of energy. Hydrogen must either be separated from water, through electrolysis, or must be funneled off from the combustion of natural gas or coal. These all require some type of energy input, and the last requires the combustion of fossil fuels. (Gregoire-Padro, 1998) Some scientists are currently studying the ability to create hydrogen gas from nuclear power plants. Exciting research by Orhan et al. shows how hybrid copper-chlorine cycles can produce hydrogen gas with an efficacy of around %45 for first pass. (Orhan, Dincer, & Rosen, 2009) These results are promising, however, hydrogen presents additional problems that just production. Storage of hydrogen is a mystery to most scientists that is only currently coming close to realization. New ceramic polymers and thermodynamic studies, however, are still lacking in the ability to provide answers as to how hydrogen could be safely transported in mass quantities after it has been created. (Christensen, Johannessen, S¯rensen, & N¯rskov, 2006) Unfortunately, the infrastructure and technology to make this the center of our energy needs is not feasible, but has the potential to be in the future. (Gregoire-Padro, 1998)
Because of the lacking technology needed to use hydrogen as a fuel source, and due to the pressures of global warming to reduce carbon emissions, biofuels have risen to the top of the fuel priority list. Biofuels are are easy to produce, transport and their use leaves less of a carbon footprint than burning petroleum. The US already uses a large portion of corn to form ethanol, a biofuel added to gasoline. In this way, the nation curbs its every growing dependence on foreign oil, by creating a gasoline mixture which contains 85% ethanol, and only 15% petroleum. Scientists are also looking for ways to create biofuels from various sources. Currently, research targets rapeseed, due to its disease resistance and high growth rate. Rapeseed transesterification changes the oils in the seed into combustible, highly branched hydrocarbon methyl esters, much like those found in diesel oil. Various processes have been described in the creation of these branched alkanes. (De Filippis, Borgianni, & Paolucci, 2005) Opponents to this type of biofuel state that the use of rapeseed for oil causes more farmers to fore-fit their current food producing crops to create oil producing crops, much like corn and soy farmers in the US have done. Pressure is also placed on farmers to expand into forested ares, and to clear them to grow oil crops. It is for this reason that certain areas seek biofuel solutions particular to their region. Ireland, for example, exploits the high amount of beef byproducts found in their country to create biomass fuel. Ireland produces more beef than any other member of the United Kingdom, and yet has fewer people than any other geographic location in it. The country, in order to secure their energy needs, is looking at using these byproducts to create biofuels through bacterial digestion of said beef products. It is hoped that the biomethane created by bacterial digestion could potentially account for a large portion of the countries energy needs. They hope to have up to 33% of their natural gas supplied this way by 2020(Singh, Smyth, & Murphy, 2010)
Unfortunately for biomass enthusiasts, major drawbacks keep these fuel types from discussions of future energy development. A study conducted by the Taiwaneese shows that only drastic changes in technology will move the competition for alternatives, such as biomass, to levels needed for wide spread use. Lee and Lee found that in the absence of increased technology, only bioethanol, such as that derived from corn in the US, would become prevalent as an alternative fuel source, and only to a small degree as compared to the use of coal, oil and natural gas. (Lee & Lee, 2007) Various environmental agencies and groups, as well, have published date reflecting the devastating effects biomass production can have on the environment, as well as on the indigenous species of certain biomass production areas. A study by Eggers et al. show that certain species are affected negatively by the production of biomass through the changing topology of their environment, and especially though the deforestation of large portions of land. (Eggers, et al., 2009) Due to ever increasing prices of petroleum, the Thai government looks constantly for an escape from foreign oil. Currently, legislation is under consideration by the government to impose a 10% biofuel minimum level in all fuels. Due to the lack of knowledge regarding the impact of using a 10% blend in every vehicle could have on the environment, the Thai government decided to conduct a study of ozone levels, and the rates at which they could rise over the next few years. Although they concluded that rates would rise less than would the typical ozone level increases seen with just fleet expansion, the results did show that as much as 24% of the normal increase would come from biofuels. The typical 48pp level increase would be accompanied by a 15pp increase in ozone as well. (Milt, Milano, Garivait, & Kamens, 2009) While biofuels seem to be a good step in the right direction, additional alternatives must be considered, due to the ill effects such fuels can impose on the environment.
A methanol based economy could be the answer to these problems. Not only can methanol store energy in much the same way biofuels, hydrogen and nuclear energies can, but it is also a highly traded commodity. Every country uses methanol, to some degree, in the synthesis of chemical compounds. In Mongolia, the Qinghua Group built an estimated 246 million renminbi (36 million US dollar) methanol plant. (“Qinghua Group Starts up 200 000 T/A Methanol Project,” 2007) The amount of the initial investment shows how lucrative the production of methanol currently is. The idea of a methanol economy is a relatively new one. As mentioned before, the Nobel Prize winning chemist George Olah stated that methanol could be the solution to our carbon woes. Not only is methanol produced in most countries, unlike hydrogen, biomass and nuclear energy, but it is environmentally friendly. (Olah, 2005) Production plants also have the ability to pull carbon dioxide right out of the atmosphere to combine it with hydrogen to produce methanol. The idea of the recycling of carbon dioxide through the production and combustion of methanol has been discussed by some of the worlds most intelligent minds. (Olah, Goeppert, & Prakash, 2008) Pilot reactors studied by Doss, Ramos and Atkins, already under construction, have already yielded results showing that production of methanol from atmospheric carbon dioxide through catalysis is feasible under only 1400 psi at 240 degrees Celsius, with a 9.7% conversion rate and 44% yield of methanol on only the first pass. (Doss, Ramos, & Atkins, 2009) Pass this reaction gas through the process multiple times, and the carbon dioxide levels drop substantially, increasing the yields of methanol greatly. Because methanol is already transported and created in multiple areas, the logistics problems seen with hydrogen are not as detrimental to this carbon solution.
So where would other alternative energies fit in with a methanol economy? Obviously, diversification will exist, as it does today. Hamelinck and Faaij, through technical and economic prospects have detailed the rise of methanol and hydrogen production from biomass. Instead of producing fuels from biomass, hydrogen could instead be the main focus, which is much cleaner to make than ethanol. This production of hydrogen could then be used in turn to create methanol. Overall, energy efficiency could rise anywhere from 55% to 60% with the use of these two energy currencies. Currently, it costs about 8-12 US dollars per GJ (gigajoule) of energy. The reason that hydrogen and methanol do not have their place in society yet is because the use of coal and oil costs about 4-6 US dollars per GJ. Hamelinck and Faaij, however, predict that with advances in technology, chemical synthesis techniques and increases in the price of oil, that the cost of production of methanol and hydrogen could go as low as 5-7 US dollars per GJ. This price range would then make the use of hydrogen and methanol competitive with the current prices of fossil fuels. (Hamelinck & Faaij, 2002)
Not only is methanol readily available in supply and infrastructure, but it is efficient. Studies show currently that methanol can be mixed in high ratios with diesel fuel can power trucks and cars. Although the pollutants created from the combustion of methanol with diesel are higher than normal gasoline, the efficiency is increased. One must remember that current catalytic converters present in automobiles work on the byproducts of gas and diesel combustion, and not of methanol. New converters would need to be created. (Song, Liu, Wang, & Liu, 2008) Efficiency can also be increased with fuel cells. In tests, methanol provides energy to electrolytic cells just as well or better than hydrocarbons or hydrogen when used in fuel cells as well. (Ogden, Steinbugler, & Kreutz, 1999) Due to infrastructure and the lack of carbon footprint, Thomas et al. suggests that methanol fuel cells win the competition. (Thomas, James, Lomax, & Kuhn, 2000)
Because it’s readily available, central to economies, easily transported and cheap, methanol proves itself as a worthy adversary to the use of oil, natural gas and coal. Not only can it power generators, cars and stoves, but it can heat homes, partake in the creation of various chemical compounds and be used in various consumer products. Moving to a methanol based economy would not only cut carbon emissions, but pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. For the time being, it is the cheapest, most environmentally friendly alternative to oil that makes sense.
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