Exploring the Methanol Economy  This week, President Bush called for greater reliance on ethanol as a fuel source, along with increased use of alternative fuels such as biodiesel and hydrogen. Nobel Laureate George Olah says that the answer isn't ethanol or hydrogen -- it's methanol.
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Exploring the Methanol Economy 

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Exploring the Methanol Economy 

Exploring the Methanol Economy 

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Even if you're driving a 40 mile-per-gallon Prius VW diesel or a Smart Car, you're feeling the pain at the pump. And over the past years, we've talked with experts, plenty of them, about various energy alternatives from wind, to solar, to nuclear, to ethanol, to hydrogen fuel cells, but none of those are the answer says Dr. George Olah, an expert in hydrocarbons and a 1994 winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. He's putting his money on alcohol, but not the ethanol made from corn that might be in your gas tank now. We're talking about methanol, what we used to call wood alcohol.

He says, with the will and effort that we could muster, we could actually convert to an entirely methanol-based economy. He's even designed a methanol fuel cell that could not only turn methanol into electricity, but could be run in reverse, creating methanol, and in the process, sucking up carbon dioxide from industrial sources, turning it into liquid methanol.

So, we're going to be talking about this with Dr. Olah, and if you'd like to get in on our conversation, our number is 1-800-989-8255; 1-800-989-TALK. What do you think about a methanol economy?

George Olah is a Nobel laureate in medicine--in chemistry. He is the co-author of, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, just out from Wiley-VCH. And, he's the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of organic chemistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He joins us from the studios of KUSC. Welcome to the program Dr. Olah.

Dr. GEORGE OLAH (Nobel Laureate, Chemistry; Author; Professor of Organic Chemistry, University of California): It's my pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: What do you think of the president's statements about alternative energy? He's pushing for more methanol and research into hydrogen.

Dr. OLAH: Now, look, obviously, the president is trying his best. We have a difficult situation, but, as others said before, there are no easy, simple solutions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Why do you think methanol is better than all these other solutions?

Dr. OLAH: Now, look, first, I would like to say something about energy. You see, we are not involved in generating energy. You can generate energy from different sources, and mankind--even Homo sapiens, our ancestors, managed to light fire in a cave, is using for life--energy. Initially, of course, it was burning wood and what was our ancestor gathered. Eventually, in the industrial revolution, coal was the (unintelligible) which gave the power for the industrial revolution.

And, then, in the 19th century--the second part in the 19th century--mankind discovered petroleum oil, which was seeping up in some places from the ground, and, eventually, it was found that if you dig down a little, you can get out more, and a huge industry developed, which is producing oil. And, somewhat later, natural gas entered the picture.

And, the 20th century, basically, was based on enormous progress using these gifts from nature. You see, all these so-called fossil fuels, coal, oil, natural gas, are formed in nature from natural sources…

FLATOW: Dr. Olah, we understand the history. We're trying to understand why you want methanol instead of ethanol or hydrogen or any of these other sources?

Dr. OLAH: Well, I'm not really trying to give you a history, I'm just telling to tell you that, what we have, what was given by nature, unfortunately, is limited, and we are using it up. And, therefore, we need to find new solutions. And the quest for new solution is complex, difficult, and I don't believe that there is a single silver bullet.

Now, much is said about, say, hydrogen economy. Or, much is said about--recently, about ethanol. And these are all ways to try to face the problem, but, when you think about it, hydrogen is not a primary source. Hydrogen is not available on planet Earth in its free form. There is no hydrogen in our atmosphere. You can't mine hydrogen. Hydrogen is bomb because it's like the other elements. For example…

FLATOW: It's in the water. It's in the water. But, we have lots of it in our oceans.

Dr. OLAH: We have it in the water, but in order to free it from the water a lot of energy is needed for it. And the same can be said for others. Now, once you have energy, whether it's from still-existing fossil fuels, atomic energy, or any other alternate source--the wind, the water (unintelligible) and so on--you still must store it. And, this is a very big problem and hydrogen, in my mind, is simply a way to store energy. You use energy to liberate hydrogen, say, from water. And then you have hydrogen gas, a very volatile, very difficult to handle gas--our lightest element--and you need an entirely new infrastructure to handle it under high pressure and so on.

Now, there are other ways to store energy and other ways to generate…

FLATOW: Well, what's wrong with ethanol? Ethanol is also, you know, you have to make ethanol like you would have to make methanol and it comes from an energy source. Why not (unintelligible)...

Dr. OLAH: (Unintelligible)

FLATOW: Why is methanol--which you still haven't told why it's better than ethanol or better than any of them.

Dr. OLAH: Oh, Mr. Flatow, you ask a very good question. Ethanol is produced, or what is promoted presently, and what the president puts major emphasis on it--is coming from agricultural sources. It can, of course, also be made by chemists, and very few people talk about it. But, what we are talking about ethanol is, that we can grow, of course, a lot of corn or other agricultural product, and they can be converted by fermentation and so on to ethyl alcohol.

Now, what's wrong with it? What's wrong with it, first of all, I don't believe that ethanol, really, is a very good fuel for our cars and so on. Now, just as an anecdotal remark, I don't know how far this is known, but the first one who really suggested to use agricultural alcohol as a fuel and as a source, as a raw material, was Lenin after the Bolshevik Revolution. And he suggested that Russia's agricultural alcohol, which is available in fairly large amount, could be used.

Now, the trouble was that agricultural alcohol in Russia is vodka. Whereas the Russians tolerated a lot from the Bolsheviks--they killed, robbed, raped and so on--but this was, to my knowledge, the only item where was such a great resistance, that even Lenin, in his life, withdrew this. Now, when I am saying…

FLATOW: So, ethanol is the Communist fuel…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Is that what you're saying?

Dr. OLAH: I am not saying it's a Communist fuel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. OLAH: Let's put it this way: In Russia, way before the Communists…


Dr. OLAH: …people had a very difficult life, and vodka, which came from fermenting either grain or potatoes and so on, which made life somewhat easier. So giving it up wasn't really something even the Russians were willing to do.

Now, there is an essential difference between methanol and ethanol. When we are talking about methanol, it's--as you mentioned in your introduction, originally it was made in small amounts from distilling wood or wood chip. But basically methyl alcohol or methanol is made by man, and it can be made from different sources. Presently, it's made mainly exclusively from natural gas or from coal. Now, these are, of course, fossil fuels and they suffering the same problem as oil and gas: they are limited in amount. And whereas they may last longer than oil and coal, still we are talking about a lifespan, even of coal reserve, which is not more than a couple of centuries. In contrast, methanol can be made by man from still-available sources like natural gas or coal, but eventually it can be also made from carbon dioxide.

Now, may I mention something? All fossil fuels--all fuels which contain raw material, which contains carbon, when it's used up and burned, it combines with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is also part of our atmosphere, although in a low concentration. Now, it was realized years ago that carbon dioxide is also a greenhouse gas. It contributes to global warming in the way that with increasing carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, we are able to revert less energy of the sun back and therefore our planet is undergoing a warming process, which causes real problem. I don't think I need to go in detail of this; it's fairly well known.

In Kyoto, eight years ago, 140-some nations come to an agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, which said that we should limit carbon emission. It's a wonderful and very sensible decision. The only trouble with Kyoto is that it was not able to offer any technological solution. It offered an economic solution of sort, that each country will have a given quota of how much carbon dioxide it can emit; and these quotas are even starting to be traded. But, as you know, the air belongs to everybody. There is no barriers going up to heaven between countries. So whoever lets up carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it's very readily spread out over the whole globe. So we have this problem of (unintelligible)…

FLATOW: Dr. Olah, I have to--I have to interrupt you because we have to take a break; so let me let everybody take a break. We'll come back and talk more with Dr. George Olah, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, co-author of Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy. I'll try my best to see if we can get out of him how a methanol economy would work. I'm trying. So stay with us, we'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with George Olah, Nobel prize chemist, author of the--co-author of the book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, co-author with Alain Goeppert, C.G. Surya Prakash. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Dr. Olah, you were saying that methanol is basically an intermediary. It's not an energy itself, but it's a way to store other energies. If you have methane, if you have other kinds of energies, you can use it to transport it to other places that you might not be able to do with other energies; and then you can take it to a gas station and pump it into a car itself, would that be correct?

Dr. OLAH: Well, you said, of course, that it's a storage of (unintelligible) energies.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. OLAH: Also a convenient way to transport energy.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. OLAH: Much more convenient than very volatile and dangerous hydrogen gas. But methanol, itself, is also an excellent fuel. You can mix it in any proportion into gasoline. And this incidentally was done years ago, but it slowly disappeared. Now, you can also use it in other devices, like you mentioned a fuel cell. A fuel cell is a device in which a chemical reaction produces directly electricity. So we have developed, together with colleagues from Cal Tech's JPL Laboratory, a fuel cell device, which isn't working on hydrogen and oxygen; it's a original a fuel cell which was discovered more than a century ago and was rediscovered in the space age. Our fuel cell works on a safe liquid. Methyl alcohol or methanol is a liquid which boils around 56 degrees, so it can handle very well--it can handle at pump at gasoline stations or it can put into fuel cells…

FLATOW: (unintelligible)

Dr. OLAH: …without creating or discovering or spending trillions on new infrastructure.

FLATOW: You also mentioned…

Dr. OLAH: But beside…

FLATOW: You also mentioned that the fuel cell can work backwards to make methanol. How does that happen? And also, in doing so, it sucks--you can suck in carbon dioxide out of smokestacks or the air just to recycle it, so to speak.

Dr. OLAH: Well, as you raise this question now, I'm coming to it. If--methanol is a good fuel and it's also an excellent raw material. It's well known now that you can make practically everything which is manufactured from oil or gas--all our product, plastic, pharmaceutical, dyes, whatever, you can all make them from methanol because methanol can be very easily converted into the building block of synthetic hydrocarbons, which are called olefins, ethylene or propylene.

Now, the question is, of course, how you get methanol. And I said that presently methanol is produced from fossil fuel sources like coal or natural gas. However, in the last 10 years that I am heading institute at the University of Southern California called the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute, dedicated--to my knowledge, it's the only research institute dedicated to the study of hydrocarbon, and we are doing this for 25 years.

So anyhow, we have worked very hard in the last 10 years to find new ways to produce methanol. We have found ways how we can very significantly improve the way we are using, say, natural gas to methanol; but we have also found ways to convert carbon dioxide, this greenhouse--condemned greenhouse gas, which we have enormous problems to consider what we do with--with excess carbon dioxide building in the atmosphere.

I want to remind the audience that when we burn coal or oil or gas in the power plants or in our cars, what it's transformed to--the carbon content goes up as carbon dioxide, the hydrogen content goes up as water, and on the human time scale, this is irreversible. What I mean, on the human time scale, Mother Nature is recycling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, from the-- All the plants you see, all green plants, trees, bushes, whatever, are basically nature's wonderful little factories which capture carbon dioxide out of the air and with water, using the sun energy and a green dye called chlorophyll as a catalyst, produce new plant life; and new plant life eventually is transferred to these fuels; coal or oil or gas. The only trouble is that it takes millions and millions and hundreds of millions of years, and we don't have time to do this.

So what we have done was reworked our methods, how you can take carbon dioxide and convert it by the miracles of chemistry into useful fuels, primarily into methanol. Now, of course, for this conversion, you need hydrogen and you need energy, so, again, I want to emphasize that we are not in some mysterious way creating new energy. We are able, however, to produce methanol, which I firmly believe is an essentially applicable fuel…

FLATOW: Okay, let me get--let me get--let me get some calls in here. 1-800-989-8255.

Dr. OLAH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Frank(ph) in Henderson, Nevada. Hi, Frank.

FRANK (caller): Good morning. I'm interested to--you know, the doctor was gracious enough to explain how, you know, how the fossils works. If he could get into what is the cost per gallon of methanol alcohol and, you know, how much energy does it take to create that? Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

Dr. OLAH: Now, of course, I'm a scientist and I am not an economist or industrialist. I can only tell you that the cost of producing methanol, which basically is manmade, presently from conventional sources, it's about, I guess, a dollar a gallon. It's certainly substantially cheaper than ethanol, and it's cheaper than--than gasoline. Now, the new way I mentioned to you--that we found a way to use recycling--if I may say, this chemical recycling of carbon dioxide into methanol, it's a very new approach. I don't think I can give you any estimate for it. The cost, of course, is energy cost. You need, for this conversion, hydrogen, which you will need to generate from water. And for this, needed energy can come from any energy source.

FLATOW: Can I interrupt you for a second, doctor? Are you saying that if we were--if we were to make hydrogen, let's say, from wind turbines or whatever, we've decided that hydrogen were to become a large part of our economy, that instead of creating a hydrogen-fueled vehicle, you say it's better to take that hydrogen and turn it into methanol, which we can now pump and tanker and take it around the country safely or safer. Is that basically how methanol might work in a hydrogen economy?

Dr. OLAH: Exactly.

FLATOW: …and be turned into a methanol economy?

Dr. OLAH: Exactly, because we are--still would need to generate hydrogen, but immediately convert it into a convenient liquid form.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. OLAH: This is methanol, which can be transported easily through pipeline, tankers, whatever. It can be dispensed into cars in existing facilities--in existing filling stations and so on. It's a safe liquid, and you get away from all the enormous difficulties of handling hydrogen. I am not criticizing hydrogen as such in static installation, and the space industry, of course, are doing this; they handle metric tons of hydrogen. But in the public use, there will be enormous difficulties, of course. So it's a much more convenient way…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Dr. OLAH: …to--to store our energy, plus, you see, hydrogen can be only burned to produce energy.

FLATOW: Well, you can make a fuel, you can make…

Dr. OLAH: Methanol can not only burn...

FLATOW: Well, you could make a fuel cell for its use, could you not?

Dr. OLAH: Now, what--Mr. Flatow, you ask about it. We have discovered a way--for example, one of the many ways was that you can reverse a fuel cell. You can feed into the fuel cell carbon dioxide and methanol and electric current, and you can produce methanols. So, in other words, you can reverse the process. This one way to produce methanol from carbon dioxide. There are other ways.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me go to the phones. Bob(ph) in Tahlequah, OK is that it?

BOB (Caller): It's Tahlequah.

FLATOW: I'm sorry.

BOB (Caller): That's okay. A very interesting discussion and very prudent, very timely. I see it like this, very interesting what your guest is talking about there, but I see it's like it's where the rubber meets the road. It's not corn that we want to get ethanol, or methanol from, its hemp, and hemp is illegal for farmers to grow. And hemp would be the best plant for getting methanol.

FLATOW: Why do you say that?

BOB (Caller): It's already been proven. It's been demonstrated, as your guest pointed out. This--all this process has been proven before. Henry Ford, no matter what you think about Henry Ford, had proven this a long time ago.


Dr. OLAH: Look, honestly, I don't know anything about hemp, but I can tell you one thing. With the enormous amounts which are needed, and the consumption--look our gasoline consumption, it's enormous. This country's using each and every day 21 million barrels of oil, 65 percent of which goes into gasoline or transportation fuel. With this enormous amount, I don't think that relying entirely on whatever agricultural resource is going to be the solution. In contrast of this, you can today produce methanol industrially on a very large scale at a reasonable price, certainly at a cheaper price than some of the highly touted alternates. Look, I have nothing against ethanol. As a matter of fact, having occasionally a nice drink is even good for your health. But what I would like to emphasize is, that if ethanol would be the solution and the most suitable alternate fuel; you can make ethanol very efficiently from methanol without, without getting involved in trying to convert half of the planet earth into agricultural production.

FLATOW: So you're you saying that methanol would be the universal energy carrier? In other words, you could take hydrogen make it into methanol, then you could take methanol and make it into ethanol if you'd like to. And so that would be the basis of an economy. And, in addition, in creating the methanol, you're saying that we could actually suck out carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? Would that be…

Dr. OLAH: Exactly. Exactly but…

FLATOW: Now let me get, this is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Dr. George Olah. I'm sorry Dr. Olah. Go ahead.

Dr. OLAH: I only would like to add what you said Mr. Flatow…

FLATOW: Please.

Dr. OLAH: One other aspect namely, that methanol is also an excellent raw material to produce all the products we presently produce from oil and gas. As you know, oil and gas is not only used for energy source for gasoline or heating homes. It's also the raw material to produce large variety of materials to which we are so used, from synthetics to pharmaceuticals to all kind of product.

FLATOW: Let me get--I've got another phone call. Malcolm(ph) in Grants Pass, OR. Hi, Malcolm.

MALCOLM (Caller): Hi there. I just find this extremely exciting for a couple of reasons. One, two or three months ago, I've been pondering all this stuff about the hydrogen economy and all the drawbacks of trying to transport and store hydrogen gas 'cause it's so, you know, it's so hard to do. I came up with an idea of putting carbon dioxide out of the air with hydrogen and making propane. So it sounds like this gentleman is going along a pretty parallel line. I actually have a chemistry professor at one of the local colleges here where I live that's supposed to be giving his class an assignment of how feasible this would be, but I haven't heard back from him. So I'm really glad to hear that this is coming out by somebody that has a lot more credibility than I do. I'm just a regular guy.

FLATOW: He's actually talking about making--propane is not a liquid is it? But he's actually talking about like making a liquid…

MALCOLM (Caller): But under very low pressure, liquid propane. They use it in cars and busses already.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Dr. Olah, what's your reaction?

Dr. OLAH: Well I only would add to this. Not only can you make propane if you want, but you can make practically any hydrocarbon or hydrocarbon product. The major building blocks to make synthetic hydrocarbons are unsaturated scoldolophine(ph), like ethylene and propylene. And those are very easily made in one direct--it's not a dream any more. As a matter of fact, there are some very large plans presently built in the world, unfortunately not in the U.S., in converting methanol into propylene and hydrocarbon.

FLATOW: Dr. Olah, I only have a couple of minutes left and I want to give you a chance to tell us in those couple of minutes, how would we get to that society? What would we have to do to get a methanol-based society? I know it's a long order in a couple of minutes, so give us a thumbnail sketch?

Dr. OLAH: What I can tell you is following--we were doing extensive research for a long while driven by curiosity. I never thought that this research would reach a point where it would be seriously considered for practical, large-scale application. Now, events are bringing this about. We need desperately to find solution for our future. All the measures the president and others are talking about are in a small way fine, but it still isn't giving a real solution for the future. Now, the fact that methanol can be used as an energy carrier, as a fuel, as a raw material to replace, and I am very serious about it, it can and will replace eventually oil and gas. And it's all gas. I think that science, or at least basic science, has an obligation to try to discover and drive new approaches. Now, I don't suggest that it's the only approach. I think we should explore and use whatever is coming up. But I think this approach is a new and feasible approach certainly worthwhile to seriously consider and explore.

FLATOW: Dr. Olah, I want to thank you very much for taking time to join us. George Olah, Nobel Laureate in chemistry; co-author of Beyond Oil And Gas, The Methanol Economy, just out from Mo Wiley-VHC. He's also the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker distinguished professor of organic chemistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Thanks again for taking time to be with us.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break when we come…

Dr. OLAH: It was my pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. We're going to take a break, and when we come back we're going to talk about nanotechnology. What do we know about the potential risks of this up and coming field of material science? Stay with us, we'll be right back.

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