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ETH Zürich, Total team develops new catalyst to convert CO2 and H2 directly to methanol efficiently

Scientists at ETH Zürich and oil and gas company Total have developed a new catalyst that efficiently converts CO2 and hydrogen directly into methanol. Offering realistic market potential, the technology paves the way for the sustainable production of fuels and chemicals.

ETH Zürich and Total have jointly filed a patent for the technology. Total now plans to scale up the approach and potentially implement the technology in a demonstration unit over the next few years. An open-access paper on the work is published in Nature Communications.

The global economy still relies on the fossil carbon sources of petroleum, natural gas and coal, not just to produce fuel, but also as a raw material used by the chemical industry to manufacture plastics and countless other chemical compounds. Although efforts have been made for some time to find ways of manufacturing liquid fuels and chemical products from alternative, sustainable resources, these have not yet progressed beyond niche applications.

Methanol is regarded as a commodity or bulk chemical. It is possible to convert it into fuels and a wide variety of chemical products, including those that today are mainly based on fossil resources. Moreover, methanol itself has the potential to be utilized as a propellant, in methanol fuel cells, for example.

The core of the new approach is a chemical catalyst based on indium oxide, which was developed by Javier Pérez-Ramírez, Professor of Catalysis Engineering at ETH Zürich, and his team. Just a few years ago, the team successfully demonstrated in experiments that indium oxide (In2O3) was capable of catalyzing the necessary chemical reaction. Even at the time, it was encouraging that doing so generated virtually only methanol and almost no by-products other than water. The catalyst also proved to be highly stable. However, indium oxide was not sufficiently active as a catalyst; the large quantities needed prevent it from being a commercially viable option.

The team of scientists have now succeeded in boosting the activity of the catalyst significantly, without affecting its selectivity or stability. They achieved this by treating the indium oxide with a small quantity of palladium.

Recently, In2O3 was discovered as a highly selective and stable catalyst for green methanol production from CO2. Activity boosting by promotion with palladium, an efficient H2-splitter, was partially successful since palladium nanoparticles mediate the parasitic reverse water–gas shift reaction, reducing selectivity, and sinter or alloy with indium, limiting metal utilization and robustness.

Here, we show that the precise palladium atoms architecture reached by controlled co-precipitation eliminates these limitations. Palladium atoms replacing indium atoms in the active In3O5 ensemble attract additional palladium atoms deposited onto the surface forming low-nuclearity clusters, which foster H2 activation and remain unaltered, enabling record productivities for 500 h.

—Frei et al.

Pérez-Ramírez points out that, with the aid of advanced analytical and theoretical methods, catalysis may now be considered nanotechnology, and in fact, the project clearly shows this to be the case.

The CO2 may be extracted from the atmosphere or—more simply and efficiently—from the exhaust discharged by combustion power plants. Even if fuels are synthesized from the methanol and subsequently combusted, the CO2 is recycled and thus the carbon cycle is closed.

Producing the second raw material, hydrogen, requires electricity. However, the scientists point out that if this electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydropower energy, it can be used to make sustainable methanol and thus sustainable chemicals and fuels.

Compared to other methods that are currently being applied to produce green fuels, Pérez-Ramírez says, this technology has the great advantage that it is almost ready for the market.


  • Frei MS, Mondelli C, Garcia-Muelas R, Kley KS, Puértolas B, López N, Safonova O, Stewart JA, Curulla Ferré D, Pérez-Ramírez J (2019) “Atomic-scale engineering of indium oxide promotion by palladium for methanol production via CO2 hydrogenation.” Nature Communications, doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-11349-9



The CO2 may be extracted from the atmosphere or—more simply and efficiently—from the exhaust discharged by combustion power plants...

Reuse to reduce.


Methanol is a much better way of storing and moving energy than H2, so that it good.
(liquid, rather than very small gas molecules).
I suppose it is easy enough to pipe CO2 around to where you have the electricity (or vice versa).
People have been talking about a "methanol economy" for years. (google it).
You might well need a way of making chemical fuels for aircraft and maybe ships.
Land transport can be mainly electric, staring now, if people really wanted to do it..


This isn't bad, but you can buy the standard catalyst (copper oxide on alumina) in tonne quantities from alibaba right now.  It's not stated what advantage this much more expensive catalyst provides.


Methanol is already used as fuel for ships, e.g. by Stena Line in Sweden. I think the problem mostly is about cost. Using a scrubber and dirty bunker oil is still cheaper than alternative fuels. There is also an LNG ferry in operation between Sweden and Finland. (You can probably find many other examples in both cases on an international level.) Which option is better? Well, I suppose it depends on the supply chain. Both MeOH and LNG are made in large quantities today from remote natural gas. In both cases, cost and efficiency are some of the main issues. LNG can apparently be handled on ships without any major issues but it is not that practical on smaller vehicles/vessels. MeOH has an advantage here. On-board reforming of MeOH to make hydrogen is also simpler on a long-term horizon when (?) fuel cells would be an option. Would synthesis of MeOH from CO2 via energy supply from other sources tip the balance over to MeOH? Well, it remains to be seen... The problem so far seems to be that the automotive industry is not in favour of MeOH. Not at all! If this negative association is not broken, there is no future for MeOH in the automotive industry. LNG is already in use in HD vehicles, in spite of the problems associated with the handling of a cryogenic fuel in vehicles.


Well, MeOH is the easiest room-temperature liquid to synthesize from CO2 and H2, and retains more energy per carbon atom than hydrocarbons do.  As a medium for storing energy from whatever source, methanol beats hydrogen in a number of ways.  It's also substantially compatible with the existing vehicle fleet, as Fiat's test of A20 fuel showed.

It may not be a world-beater but it has a lot going for it.


Burned In a closed loop system where the emissions can be controlled, this sounds good; however, in an open system it's is just another polluting chemical.


The problem with MeOH is the negative standpoint from the auto industry. A couple of years ago, the automotive manufacturer's organisation (known as the “Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles”, or OICA) agreed on a document called "Worldwide Fuel Charter" (WWFC) for fuel specifications. WWFC has a clear position on MeOH. This mainly concerns MeOH as a blending component but the message is quite clear: "Methanol is not permitted".

OICA is the highest level organization for automotive manufacturers. Some manufacturers might have their own (different) position on MeOH but as long as OICA does not permit MeOH, not much will happen.

Today, MeOH is the biggest chemical commodity in the worldwide market (fuels as gasoline and diesel are not considered in this case). Trade and transport of MeOH is worldwide. We also know how to distribute methanol and dispense it at refueling stations. There is no obstacle regarding the supply chain to utilize MeOH in vehicles today. Current vehicle and engine technology could be adapted to MeOH. In fact, MeOH has several advantages over gasoline and diesel, and in the future, fuel cells could be used. Moreover, compared to most other alternative fuels, MeOH from NG is quite affordable. Yet, it is not utilized. Perhaps someone at this site could ask OICA why not.


Highly pertinent question:  does the petroleum industry have any representation in the OICA?

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