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Methanol: Industry bets on the organic chemical in push for net-zero

Sustainability is at the center of any business strategy regardless of the sector, and for sectors that are so heavily reliant on energy consumption, this green transition is mostly focused on employing the cleanest forms of fuel possible. Whilst road transportation has bet on electric vehicles as the main technology for reliable and clean energy, maritime transportation faces obvious difficulties to implement the same technology when trying to reduce its emissions.  Although LNG was widely implemented as the fuel of choice to reduce emissions in the early stages of the sector’s green transition, most industry leaders have recently turned to methanol to accelerate said transition because its cleaner, cheaper, and easier to handle. But, for the industry to significantly reduce its impact on the environment, it should strive to produce green methanol for a truly clean energy transition.

Maersk, the second largest container shipping company, is leading by example. The Danish company has set up strategic partnerships with energy companies around the world to significantly increase green methanol production capacity to ultimately go net-zero by 2040. But the two main processes to produce green methanol, biomass gasification and renewable-energy-powered electrolysis, must overcome some challenges to unlock its full potential. While the first process involves a much more complex procedure that hampers its cost-competitiveness, the latter requires for renewable energies to represent a larger chunk of the global energy mix, so it can be used for this purpose massively. Therefore, the smartest way to move forward and develop this technology might be the creation of hubs devoted to produce electricity and biofuels.

Another beneficial feature of green methanol production is that it captures CO2 directly from the air, so it could contribute to decarbonization in emissions intensive industries. Also, being able to produce methanol from clean energy sources would contribute to decarbonization in many other industrial segments because how widely methanol is used in industrial manufacturing, ranging from gasoline blending to plastic production and wastewater treatment. Although, as profit margins vary significantly from one industrial segment to the other, it is key for green methanol to be commercially viable. And for that to happen, upcoming years are key to draw up plans to develop further production facilities, specially making the most of synergies with other high-interest chemicals like ammonia and hydrogen.

Methanol’s capacity to carry hydrogen could easily be used to help it overcome some of the issues that are holding it back.  Since methanol is liquid by default, it is much easier to store and distribute than pure hydrogen. And considering that the implementation of hydrogen-based systems has been historically slow mainly due to these weaknesses, the rise in R&D surrounding methanol could give the much-expected final push for fuel-cell technology.