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USC researchers outline their proposed anthropogenic chemical carbon cycle; the “Methanol Economy”

8 July 2011

Anthropogenic chemical carbon cycle. Click to enlarge.

In a Perspective published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers from the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute and Department of Chemistry, University of Southern California describe their work on developing the feasible anthropogenic recycling of carbon dioxide.

Under their scheme, carbon dioxide is captured by absorption technologies from any natural or industrial source, from human activities, or even from the air itself. It can then be converted by feasible chemical transformations into fuels such as methanol, dimethyl ether, and varied products including synthetic hydrocarbons and even proteins for animal feed, thus supplementing the food chain. This broad concept the basis of what they call the Methanol Economy.

The required energy for the synthetic carbon cycle can come from any alternative energy source such as solar, wind, geothermal, and even nuclear energy. The anthropogenic carbon dioxide cycle offers a way of assuring a sustainable future for humankind when fossil fuels become scarce, they propose.

While biosources can play a limited role in supplementing future energy needs, they increasingly interfere with the essentials of the food chain. We have previously reviewed aspects of the chemical recycling of carbon dioxide to methanol and dimethyl ether. In the present Perspective, we extend the discussion of the innovative and feasible anthropogenic carbon cycle, which can be the basis of progressively liberating humankind from its dependence on diminishing fossil fuel reserves while also controlling harmful CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.

We also discuss in more detail the essential stages and the significant aspects of carbon capture and subsequent recycling. Our ability to develop a feasible anthropogenic chemical carbon cycle supplementing nature’s photosynthesis also offers a new solution to one of the major challenges facing humankind.

...The use of chemistry to supplement nature is indeed not new. The Haber-Bosch process provides ammonia by chemical synthesis using atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen generated from any source, presently mostly natural gas but eventually by water electrolysis or splitting. The anthropogenic carbon cycle, which we have proposed and discuss here, eventually will vastly exceed the scope and significance of the synthetic ammonia cycle.

—Olah et al.

In their paper, Olah et al. outline the major components of such a cycle, along with the current state of technology and possible future directions, including:

  • CO2 capture from natural and anthropogenic sources;
  • Capture and recycling of CO2 from the atmosphere;
  • Chemical CO2 recycling to fuels;
  • Production of hydrogen for CO2reduction;
  • CO2 reduction to CO followed by hydrogenation;
  • Electrochemical reduction of CO2;
  • Methanol-based fuels, chemicals, synthetic materials and proteins.

In the past 15 years, we have developed the concept of the Methanol Economy and some of the underlying new chemistry for using methanol as an energy storage medium, transportation fuel, and raw material for producing synthetic hydrocarbons and their products. It is based on the chemical anthropogenic carbon cycle. Whereas methanol is currently produced from fossil fuels through syn-gas chemistry, these resources are finite and being rapidly depleted. The recycling of CO2 using hydrogen generated eventually from water with any source of energy offers a sustainable long-term solution to our energy challenge.

However, significant bottlenecks remain, such as the relatively high cost of electricity from renewable sources needed to produce methanol. Methanol can also be made sustainably from biomass, although the available amounts of biomass will be able to provide only a small portion of humankind’s energy needs. The amount of methanol needed to replace petroleum is staggering. With half the volumetric energy density compared to gasoline, about 60 billion barrels of methanol (7.6 billion tonnes) would be required to replace the 30 billion barrels of petroleum used globally each year. This represents about 160 times the current methanol production of 48 million tonnes per year!

The anthropogenic chemical carbon cycle constitutes humankind’s practical technological analogue of nature’s slow photosynthetic CO2 recycling, which eventually could give new fossil fuels. As CO2 is available everywhere on Earth, it could liberate humankind from the reliance on diminishing and limited fossil fuels and associated dependence on obtaining them from increasingly expensive, frequently far away and geopolitically unreliable sources. Eventually, it also offers the possibility to produce all hydrocarbon-based products and materials including single-cell proteins from the CO2 content in our atmosphere.

—Olah et al.


  • George A. Olah, G. K. Surya Prakash, Alain Goeppert (2011) Anthropogenic Chemical Carbon Cycle for a Sustainable Future. Journal of the American Chemical Society Article ASAP doi: g/10.1021/ja202642

July 8, 2011 in Carbon Capture and Conversion (CCC), Methanol | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)


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I said clearly to state terrorists to do fuels with all industrial big chimneys co2 expels and recycling them back at the input.

I read Olah's book, it is a good one and he knows what he is talking about.

The stumbling blocks appear to be the cost of hydrogen from water and getting pure enough CO2, just 0.04% of air. The cheapest 'meth' type fuel is currently the methane in natural gas. Perhaps we shouldn't be burning so much in power stations but saving it for these other applications.

We never seem to get cost estimates for these meth fuels. For example the Audi e-gas system or how much DME costs per litre.

"However, significant bottlenecks remain, such as the relatively high cost of electricity from renewable sources needed to produce methanol."

This mmight make more sense than thr H2 economy.

Both/either await the time we have lots of electric power - virtually "more than we need".

In atleast one respect it makes a lot more sense than the H2 ecconomy - distribution. H2 can't be transported through our existing pipeline network in its pure state. [It can be moved through NG pipelines if its heavily diluted.] It is believed that methanol could be moved through the gasoline network, but I don't know if that has been tested yet. In any case methane does go through the NG network and it is a precursor to methanol.

Methanol is pretty toxic stuff, no? Spills? Tweaked formulations? Is it to be burned in ICEs or will it be run through a fuel cell? I would take a long look at the methanol economy

Methanol is less toxic than gasoline if leaked into the ground.

"When methanol is released into the environment it rapidly breaks down into other compounds, and serves as food for bacteria and is completely miscible in water."

Methanol can be converted to synthetic gasoline closer to the point of use.

Mr. Bighead is correct. Methanol IS 4X more toxic than gasoline. But used carefully in fuel cells or controlled dispensers it can be effective.

TT notes: "Both/either await the time we have lots of electric power - virtually "more than we need".

We have the means for more than we need now. NASA's Chief Scientist Dennis Bushnell recently acknowledged the number 1 energy development is LANR-CF physics typified by Andrea Rossi's E-Cat and Randy Mills' black light catalyst. Over-unity energy.

This of course rewires the entire energy picture - largely obviating fossil fuels and even sustainable alternatives like wind and solar (though they have their niche.)

Methanol/alcohol via CTL and biomass will remain transitional liquid fuels for hybrids and heavy lift applications like trucking. As will biodiesel and bio-jetfuel. But light duty transport will now transition ever faster to EV with E-storage systems being the biggest bottleneck.

E-Cat-like generators will rapidly replace all sources of electric generation starting with home CHP distributed energy systems. Coal fired power plants, radiative nuclear fission, hydro, wind and solar will become a tiny sliver of the overall energy generation field. The sustainables like hydro, wind and solar will retain some integration with new distribution energy. Big hydro, nuke, and wind projects as of right now go on the shelf - most likely permanently.

Essentially the energy game is now over. What remains is to see who will clean up by producing and distributing the new energy products. Centralized power is, like climate change - dead. As we have said MANY times in these posts, energy is abundant throughout the universe and we are now to make use of it.

It is a new world. A world of abundant energy able to create and manipulate matter on an unprecedented scale. It is not to be abused. And it is not to be used as a reason to neglect growing population issues. Population is the number one issue on planet Earth. To address it, some hard changes in old world faith traditions need be made. Starting with Judeo-Christian/Muslim taboos on death, seks and contraception.

Welcome to the new world. There is plenty for everyone. But let's have some elbow room please.

PS, there will be repercussions for those who have unlawfully impeded this progress. It is an inevitable and healthy part of "cleaning house."

Yep; I remember someone talking "Lebensraum" a few decades ago. He cleaned house with a big broom, the nutter.

Methanol is slightly more toxic than gasoline if ingested, but I see no evidence for a claim of 4 times more toxic.

"With half the volumetric energy density compared to gasoline, about 60 billion barrels of methanol (7.6 billion tonnes) would be required to replace the 30 billion barrels of petroleum used globally each year."

I'm surprised they made this statement by itself, because it is a little misleading. It does not factor in that an ICE optimized for methanol (or ethanol) can be at least 30% more energy efficient, and likely more if we invested more into it. This takes a large bite out of the energy density issue.

Also, if used within a fuel cell, it would likely close the gap entirely. It would seem to be a very good transition fuel for the transportation sector.

A fuel cell running on methanol would be very efficient. It has been said that there is more hydrogen in a gallon of methanol than in a gallon of liquid hydrogen. Considering the low cost of methanol, that is a bargain.

"Methanol is toxic, but it is much less so than gasoline. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that gasoline is considered to be more
hazardous to human health than neat (pure) methanol [1].

[1] United States Department of Energy, October (1991). Assessment of Costs and Benefits of Flexible and Alternative Fuel Use in the US Transportation Sector. Technical Report No. 7: Environmental, Health, and Safety Concerns

Perhaps more importantly,methanol poses no known cumulative health hazard as methanol is not classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic. The same statement cannot be made about gasoline which is a complex blend of chemicals including benzene, a chemical that is widely considered to be very toxic and carcinogenic."

@Larzen, LOL! Prosecuting criminal acts like fraud, murder and treason - does not even approach "lebensraum." Nazism attacked Gypsies and Jews not because they had committed crimes - but because they were viewed to be an "inferior" race. Just like some view the human race.

Get your facts straight clown.

SJC: Two problems - methanol is highly flammable and its vapor heavier than air. Fires must be fought with foam, dry chemical or carbon dioxide. It's readily absorbed through the skin. This makes common gas pumps a greater health hazard.

"Methanol is readily absorbed from the gut, skin, and lungs. Peak serum concentration usually occurs in 30-60 minutes following oral ingestion... As with ethylene glycol, the clinical course of methanol poisoning occurs over a number of hours. While methanol itself is only mildly intoxicating, it is converted to highly toxic metabolites responsible for acidosis, blindness, and potentially death. "

Methanol fires can be put out with water. If you don't want to use it then don't, but it would help reduce oil imports. If your car can not run on it, then use the synthetic gasoline made from it.

To obtain methanol today, the easiest approach still seems natural gas. In fact, natural gas, methanol and hydrogen offer an interesting trilogy of complementary fuels that are also extremely electrification friendly.

China is already way ahead with methanol and ramping up for serious moves into shale and fracking. The Chinese story is not JUST electrification.

Even if E-Cat is ready for primetime in the next 5 years, the legacy impacts of our current paradigm would not be overcome quickly, unless E-Cat is drastically cheaper, and I don't think there is any proof of that yet.

And since I believe the facts suggest a strong probability that dirty oil dependence will be cost-ineffectively unsustainable to a healthy environment and economy, I think greener and cleaner cost-effective bridge fuels should be driving energy policy until such proof exists.

A look at the bill of materials for any of the several E-Cat-like generators waves no cost flags. Both E-Cat and Black Light use off the shelf parts and nickle (isotope) as the catalyst. The beauty is this technology is perfect for mass scaling.

That said, the stage is set for bridge fuels and alcohol, biodiesel, NG and H2 are well positioned. Cosan and Shell have formed a $12B JV in Brazil to produce a huge increase in ethanol serving no-tariff US and Europe. Low cost electrolysis will clear the way for a huge increase in H2.

As for China leading anything green:

According to The 2010 Report on China’s Auto Industry from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, 190 vehicle models from 54 manufacturers were included at the end of 2010 in the Catalog of Recommended Models for Green Vehicle Popularization Programs, and the production of these 190 models totaled only 7,181 units in 2010–that is less than 40 units for each.

Chinese consumers just ain't interested in green.

At first when China brought in Jeep decades ago, they were not that concerned with emissions. Anyone that saw the Olympics and the air pollution can see why they might be a bit more concerned about that now.

They STILL aren't concerned with emissions SJC. China is already the biggest polluter on the planet and they do not want to stop. Their pollution (REAL toxics not CO2) affect all nations.

This is one very strong argument to jump to the over-unity technology now. Eliminating fossil polluters (China, India, SA) by implementing Rossi-Millsian thermal/solid state energy systems NOW, Earth's habitat, land, sea and air will benefit.

It means immediately switching gears to halt coal-fired power plants and start building LENR distributed power systems. Home CHP appliances are the first step in this energy revolution. Grid based thermal E-Cats come next, replacing central fossil and nukes.

We benefit by eliminating fossil-fired electric plants, inefficient and vulnerable power transmission (wires) and increasing available energy to the most disenfranchised people on the planet.

OTOH China has much stricter fuel economy standards for its conventionally fueled vehicles.

And Chinese standards apply to each individual vehicle, rather than a vehicle class average as in the United States.

The newly announced small package for producing methanol from natural gas simplifies the issue.

Vemork hydro-electric plant was built to produce nitrogen oxides, but was converted to produce hydrogen by electrolysis. Heavy water was a byproduct of this electrolysis, once it was discovered, at little extra cost. The hydrogen was combined with nitrogen from the air to make Ammonia in the newly implemented Haber process. Ammonia was used to make nitric acid for explosive manufacture and fertilizer. The deuterium and deuterium production was sabotaged to prevent Hitler from making a nuclear reactor and subsequent weapons.

Water power is now too expensive to make hydrogen because there are many other uses for hydro-electric power after national electric grids were built, and natural gas and oil was much cheaper. It may now be cheaper to make electricity with coal and make methanol or gasoline from hydrogen made by electrolysis than it is to buy foreign oil. The hydrogen can be made much cheaper from coal and water.

Small cheap electric vehicles for going shopping are a better use of any kind of electricity.

Methanol was the "safe" fuel adopted in 1965 for the INDY 500 after two drivers were killed in gasoline fires. Its flames can be put out with water alone and gasoline cannot be. Corn ethanol replaced it for political reasons. Ethanol kills more people every year than methanol so it is statistically more dangerous; as are cell phones.

All substances are toxic in one form or another or in quantity, even water. The antidote for methanol is ethanol; Ethanol is also the antidote for antifreeze, ethylene-glycol. A quarter liter(250 ml, a cupful plus) of ethanol, imbibed at one time, is likely to kill a person.

E-Cat devices may have the same difficulty as solar energy. In the long run the process may cost too much??

Shortly after a form of cold fusion was discovered by Pons and Fleishman, it was proposed that the deuterium actually reacted with the palladium instead of another deuterium atom.

Anybody who knows a little about catalysts or semiconductors, knows that the slightest change in the purity or structure of palladium could prevent the reproduction of excess heat; a nuclear reaction inside a metal with stationary atoms and intense force fields cannot be compared with the collisions of free atoms; it took many years to get the Haber ammonia producing catalysts working well. Some metal alloys can be infused with hydrogen gas at low pressure to the point that the hydrogen is more dense than liquid hydrogen. Some of the alloys are changed from a solid cube to a pile of dust in the process.

Cold fusion has been known for a long time in the form of atomic decay known as electron capture. It was also available in the form of a deuterium-deuterium collision from a low voltage accelerator of about 10,000 volts in many forms including the Farnsworth fusor. Nickel, Iron and Copper are all toxic and last forever. ..HG..

The very danger of methanol lies in the fact that it is miscible in water and when it is so, has almost no discernible taste nor odor. "Permanent blindness and death have been reported with as little as 0.1 mL/kg (6-10 mL in adults) (ATSDR 1993)."

If methanol is widely available at the pump, the risk of some lunatic may try to spike someone else's drink will be much elevated, and instead of just putting someone to sleep, that victim may die or go blind! Methanol and ethanol taste may not be too different that a partially drunk person can tell the different! Gasoline is a different story, because it smells so strongly that even a trace quantity can be immediately detected, and gasoline does not dissolve in water, hence safer water supply.

Why not produce and store H2 locally, near the point of consumption, and transfer energy via electrons in a wire (electricity)? The process is known as electrolysis of water. All solar and wind electrical generators will contribute electricity to the grid, and if excess electricity is detected, H2 production at several locations in a city can commence. The stored H2 produced in the spring and fall can be used to fuel vehicles or supplied in diluted quantity in NG pipeline for general consumption.

Many decades from now, when we will hopefully switch over to 100% renewable energy, dedicated H2 pipelines will be built to conduct H2 to local and distant destinations. The infrastructures required will produce tens of millions of badly-needed jobs, and will pay for itself via savings from having to import fossil fuels.

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