Making a Great Fuel Even Better

How replacing natural gas with biomass as feedstock for methanol production can improve biodiesel's already good environmental footing
By Erin Voegele | May 13, 2011

The vast majority of methanol produced today is sourced from natural gas, but this has not always been the case. A biobased version of the alcohol was produced for centuries before the industry moved to fossil-based feedstock. The history of biobased methanol production, in fact, can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, where a biomethanol produced via pyrolysis was used in the embalming process.

Today, a segment of the ethanol industry is returning to its roots. The world’s first commercial-scale biomethanol production facility recently began operations, and several other companies and researchers are working to scale up their respective biomethanol production technologies. For the biodiesel industry, these developments are opening the door for producers to phase out the use of fossil-based methanol, and replace the alcohol with its biobased counterpart.

While the biodiesel industry would clearly benefit from the availability of biobased methanol, it is important to note that the industry accounts for a small fraction of global methanol demand. Other markets served by the methanol industry, including the fuels, chemicals, and plastic sectors, are likely to play an important role in supporting the development of biobased methanol production.

The Methanol Institute, the global trade organization for the methanol industry, offers some valuable insight into both the methanol market and the potential for biobased methanol production. According to Matt Roberts, the Methanol Institute’s government affairs manager for the Americas and Europe, there are two important facets to the methanol market; one is chemicals, the other is fuels.

“[Methanol] is a basic building block for a lot of chemicals that touch our everyday lives, including plastics, resins, paints, glues and solvents,” he says. “There is a large portion of methanol production that is dedicated to that industry. In terms of fuels, there is a rising demand for methanol [used as a fuel], and obviously biodiesel is another component of that fuels market. While by no means the lion’s share, there is a sizable amount of methanol that is used for biodiesel production.”

Generally speaking, methanol comprises approximately 10 percent of each gallon of biodiesel. Using production numbers provided by the National Biodiesel Board, Roberts estimates that the U.S. produced about 691 million gallons of biodiesel in 2008. This would equate to the use of slightly less than 70 million gallons of methanol. The 2010 biodiesel production level of 315 million gallons represents an even smaller share of methanol use, approximately 32 million gallons.

To put that number in perspective, Greg Dolan, the Methanol Institute’s executive director for the Americas and Europe, notes that the U.S. consumed approximately 5.3 million metric tons—or 1.8 billion gallons—of methanol last year. Globally, 2010 methanol consumption measured 45 million metric tons, which equates to 15 billion gallons.” In other words, in 2010 the U.S. biodiesel industry utilized just under 2 percent of the methanol consumed domestically. That said, Dolan says he thinks the biodiesel industry will probably be one of the early adopters of biomethanol.

The Biodiesel Perspective

Renewable Energy Group Inc. is one biodiesel producer that is interested in replacing fossil-derived methanol with biobased methanol. “REG strives to find new and improved ways to reduce our overall carbon footprint,” says Dave Elsenbast, REG’s vice president, supply chain. “The best way we can do this is by increasing our use of renewable resources within our plants. Biobased methanol is a renewable resource we could use in order to reduce our dependence on [fossil]-based feedstocks…To be able to sue another renewable resource in an already renewable fuel meshes with our company strategy of sustainable energy and reducing our biodiesel’s carbon intensity and greenhouse gas emissions scores.”

According to Elsenbast, the use of biobased methanol would likely result in more favorable carbon reduction rating for his company’s biodiesel under programs like the RFS2 and low carbon fuel standard. “Because biobased methanol is a renewable resource, it should improve the overall carbon intensity and greenhouse gas emissions reductions scores to further advance REG-9000 biodiesel as an advanced biofuel in the eyes of current policy,” he says. “REG places a strong emphasis on these programs and using biobased methanol should ultimately do that.”

However, in any industrial operation, price is a factor. Elenbast notes that REG investigates all materials that go into its biodiesel for cost and quality issues. Potential drawbacks of biomethanol use could include quality differences and increased price. However, Elenbast also says that those issues are expected with any developing product. “As this product becomes readily available to the marketplace, these issues will surely be addressed,” he says. “REG is constantly looking for products that will decrease costs while maintaining or improving quality. We are aware of various attempts to produce biobased methanol and when a commercial-scale product can be made that is economically viable that works efficiently within our current processes, we would consider using it in our production facilities.”

Biobased Developments

While the technologies for some biobased fuels, including cellulosic, are encountering issues with scale up, several biomethanol production technologies are swiftly moving forward. Many of these technologies employ waste materials as feedstock.

According to Roberts, Sweden-based Chemrec AB is using black liquor from the paper mill process to produce biobased methanol. The company has formed a partnership with Volvo for fuel production and is currently operating a large demonstration-scale facility.

In Netherlands, BioMCN is actually bringing biobased methanol production full circle for the biodiesel industry. The company is using existing methanol production assets coupled with a proprietary process to convert glycerin into biobased methanol. The resulting biomethanol could be introduced back into the biodiesel process, producing additional glycerin byproduct to feed the biomethanol plant. The company recently opened the first commercial-scale biomethanol plant in the world, which can currently produce approximately 200,000 metric tons of biomethanol annually.

“One of the most interesting companies out there right now…is Carbon Recycling International,” Roberts says. The Iceland-based company is capturing waste CO2 from a power plant and using it to produce methanol. “They’ve actually set up a facility next to a geothermal power plant,” Roberts continues. “They are utilizing geothermal energy to make renewable hyd

rogen, and then combining that with CO2 waste from the power plant and turning it into methanol.”
Dolan adds that researchers at the University of Southern California are using a slightly different approach to convert CO2 into methanol. “They are working on a technology to literally strip CO2 from the atmosphere for methanol production,” he says. “So, while we are seeing technology being commercialized today for taking waste CO2 from power plants or chemical facilities, there are technologies being developed to catalytically remove CO2 from the atmosphere for methanol production.”

Any discussion of the methanol industry must also address the exponential growth being seen in the Chinese marketplace. “In just the past six or seven years, we’ve seen China’s methanol production capacity rise from 5 million metric tons to 30 million metric tons,” Dolan says. “The growth is just huge. It’s mostly based on coal gasification with China’s National Development and Reform Commission considering coal-based methanol to be a strategic transportation fuel for the country.” Although coal is the primary feedstock in the Chinese market, Dolan notes that anytime coal is being gasified there is the option to mix in some biomass, which could result in methanol production that contains a percentage of renewable content.

Overall, the potential for future biomethanol production seems bright. Over the next few years, Roberts says he is expecting to see many of the processes currently operating on the pilot-scale scale up. “Over the next five years we can expect many planned biomethanol plants to come online and start delivering even more product to market,” he continues. For example, he notes that Carbon Recycling is opening its first facility this year, and is laying the groundwork for two additional plants.

The biggest challenge right now seems to be economic, not technical. Low natural gas prices have translated into low methanol prices. According to Dolan, the spot price of methanol on the Gulf Coast in mid-April was approximately $1.08 per gallon. “It would be difficult for a biomethanol product to compete with that fairly low-cost energy resource,” he says. However, companies that are working to meet sustainability or carbon reduction goals might be willing to pay a premium for biobased inputs. “And, over time we’d certainly expect the cost of renewable methanol technologies to come down,” Dolan says.

Regarding the biodiesel industry, Elenbast says the biodiesel industry is likely to embrace the use of biomethanol. “The U.S. biodiesel industry works together on a daily, weekly, yearly basis to continually improve and develop our product in order to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, increase green collar jobs and work to improve the overall quality of life,” he says. “The principal of biobased methanol fits into the industry standards and continues the progress for improving clean energy policy and reducing dependence on foreign oil.”

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 560-6986


Opportunity to Close the Loop

Netherlands has become home to the world’s first commercial-scale biomethanol production facility. BioMCN, which was founded in 2006, purchased two existing methanol plants and is converting them to process glycerin feedstock rather than natural gas. According to Eelco Dekker, BioMCN chief marketing officer, the facilities his company acquired feature a combined production capacity of approximately 1 million metric tons. To date, 200,000 metric tons of that capacity has been converted to produce biobased methanol.

The process employed by BioMCN is unique. “We’ve built a patented process that allows us to convert crude glycerin into a natural gas alternative,” Dekker says. “In other words, normally you produce methanol from natural gas. We replace the natural gas with a biogas which we make out of crude glycerin. We could use crude glycerin from any source, but our main suppliers are biodiesel producers.”
The technology employed by BioMCN is similar to traditional methanol production, although the company retrofitted the process with front-end technology that allows the natural gas feedstock to be replaced with a biobased counterpart. “Basically what we do is convert the liquid glycerin into a kind of glycerin evaporation,” Dekker said. “It’s not really a gasification process, it’s an evaporation process. This evaporated glycerin is then fed into the conventional methanol reformer.”

Dekker credits an engineer who worked for the plant’s former owners with identifying the opportunity that waste glycerin represents. He understood that the biodiesel industry was having trouble disposing of its glycerin byproduct and recognized the prospect of converting that waste into something with value. “Where we are different from many other biofuel producers is that we took a slightly different approach to biofuels,” Dekker says. “Rather than starting from nothing, we looked at what we could do with existing assets. These units were built to produce methanol, so the availability of the feedstock on one hand, and the availability of the assets on the other hand, basically led us to think that this was a great opportunity to start doing something else.”

Although the biobased methanol produced by BioMCN is more expensive than fossil-based methanol, Dekker stresses that fuels is a primary market for his company’s product. In that case, the value of biomethanol is more applicable to the price of ethanol and biodiesel.

In the future, BioMCN’s biomethanol could help biodiesel producers improve their carbon and sustainability ratings, although biodiesel producers have yet to embrace use of the product. “It’s a market that we are interested in, but for the biodiesel producers in Europe right now, one of the key challenges is to meet sustainability requirements,” Dekker says. For the time being, they are able to meet those requirements using fossil-based methanol. He anticipates that more biodiesel producers will become interested in biomethanol as those carbon reduction requirements increase in the future.
“We are seeing initial questions coming from the leading [biodiesel] companies that are looking to improve their sustainability profile,” Dekker says. “You can imagine, it’s actually a fantastic closed loop in terms of cradle to cradle. If you start out with approximately 90 percent vegetable oil and 10 percent methanol before production of biodiesel, you end up with 90 percent biodiesel and 10 percent crude glycerin. If you then convert the crude glycerin back into methanol and supply it back into the biodiesel industry, you have a very nice closed loop system.”

BioMCN's new business development manager, Roger Blokland, also notes that soy-based biodiesel has had difficulty meeting the 35 percent CO2 reduction sustainability criteria currently employed by the European Commission. “Our initial calculations show that if you use biomethanol instead of petrochemical-based methanol, you would meet the European sustainability criteria of 35 percent,” he says.

Dekker notes that BioMCN has already exported small quantities of biomethanol to the U.S. “We are certainly open to doing more business in the U.S.,” he says. With the growing supply of biodiesel around the world, we are certainly thinking about opportunities for production outside of Europe as well,” he says. To date, BioMCN has only converted about 25 percent of its existing methanol capacity to produce biomethanol. In the short term, he says his company is looking to source larger quantities of glycerin in order to bring more capacity online. He also says that BioMCN is considering setting up similar production capacity elsewhere, perhaps in the U.S.

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