Sustainable Alternatives: Methanol (and trees!)
The primary reason I went to Svalbard a few months ago, was to learn more about human-caused pollution and the methods with which we can analyse minuscule amounts of dangerous and often hormone disrupting compounds.
One of the added benefits of attending this course, were passionate lectures given by leading scientists in their field. Experts dealing with the detection of new and hitherto unknown or unacknowledged chemicals (though not new from a production or use perspective), experts in method development and experts in air science and air pollution.
It was especially the air pollution enthusiasts who gave particularly passionate presentations. They used current and sobering statistics and showed how they could use data to back-track emission and pinpoint not just the source, but also the total emission from their data.
On the very last day of the very last lecture, these passionate experts gave a talk about how we might work our way out of the problems we have created for ourselves, and one of the suggestions was the transition to a methanol economy.
As most people are aware, we are currently running the world in large parts on oil and petroleum. It runs our cars, powers our houses, make our factories produce ever more stuff, and is used to make the plastic we are all drowning in. Emissions are at an all time high, and show no sign of stopping just yet.
Most people are aware that we cannot continue like this, but feel stumped for lack of alternatives.
- Electric cars? Often powered by coal plants (though it is much easier to clean emissions from one factory than thousands of cars).
- Hydrogen cars? The gas is difficult to transport safely and energy-intense to pressurise.
- Renewables? Great when the sun is shining, wind is blowing or there is water in the reservoir.
From several different sources, we are led to believe that fuel cells and hydrogen power will be the future. I won’t be talking much about the former in this post, but the latter displays some pretty significant challenges.
Firstly, hydrogen is explosive, and seriously so. Who has not heard of the Hindenburg disaster? Secondly, as anyone who has handled a gas canister would be aware of – those things are seriously heavy! Installing one in your car would mean that the car would spend more fuel on forward propulsion, being that much heavier. Lastly, the storage unit would have to be regularly inspected for wear and tear, further increasing the cost and putting the responsibility for safety on the consumer.
Methanol, on the other hand, is a stable liquid at room temperature and can be stored in a simple bottle or Jerry can for a long time without going bad.
It is a flammable organic compound (the simplest alcohol), just like petroleum, but burns much cleaner because it is only one carbon and a very simple structure, unlike petroleum which is a mixture of hundreds, if not thousands of compounds. Many of which are toxic and carcinogenic.
So while methanol can lead to blindness and death if consumed, it is not really any more hazardous than the petroleum we are already handling regularly.
While methanol is actually cheaper than petroleum at the moment, the main problem is that methanol is currently produced from petroleum sources. So if we were to make the switch right now, we would get just as far.
But if we manage to develop reliable and high-production systems for CO2 capture and storage, we could use this CO2, along with the hydrogen we already know how to produce, and create methanol from that.
Our cars/power plants would emit CO2 (and water), we would capture it again (using renewable sources of energy), produce methanol (hydrogen from renewable sources too) and refuel that on our cars.
The enormous difference such a system would have over the current one is that it is circular.
But carbon capture technology is not currently at a level or price where large scale extraction is possible, especially not at the high volumes we would need to make any sort of dent in the current emissions. But they are getting there, and an economic incentive like this might just be what the industry needs.
This is a potential solution that could appeal to the general public because it requires very little change to the consumer. The infrastructure and habits are already present, all it would be is a new type of fuel.
Make no mistake though, we still need to reduce consumption, both of physical goods and energy. Another thing you could do if you are able, is to plant more trees. Our obsession with lawns is beyond absurd, costing us a fortune in labour, gas, water, stuff (“tools”) and fertiliser.
On the other hand, if you plant some trees that are native or at least accustomed to your local climate, they can be largely maintenance free. They can produce crops of fruit, berries and nuts, and are important habitats for wildlife and insects. They are also cooling, which is becoming increasingly important in our blistering cities and more common heat waves.
Other perennials like berry bushes, shrubs and herbs are great for carbon capture and cooling effects as well, but trees are the best. But if you stand between planting a bush and planting nothing – by all means, go for the bush!
Just make sure you do not plant anything that is blacklisted or invasive in your area.
It just makes sense, doesn’t it? Our land will absorb a heck of a lot more carbon if we move from 2D (ridiculous lawns) to 3D (herbs, bushes, shrubs, climbers, trees and roots). This, along with self-sufficiency, is one of the biggest reasons I want to buy a small house with land and establish a forest garden. Plus, plants are just downright awesome, and I want more of them.
More information on the methanol economy can be found in the book The Methanol Economy.