Electric cars are here to stay, and their numbers are growing 60% per year. More than 1 million EVs were sold in 2017, and moderate predictions call for 10 million in 2025, and more than 30 million in 2030 (1). Others are more optimistic and have upgraded these forecasts significantly. Unfortunately, a growing EV market share will not affect significantly global warming any time soon. Even if we change all cars to EVs tomorrow, what this will mean worldwide is more CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants in China and other developing regions of the world.
Many experts across the world suggest that the ultimate solution would be to use carbon-neutral fuels for transportation and other energy storage and generation needs. The basic concept behind carbon neutral fuels (also called e-fuels) is to combine carbon dioxide, water, and electricity to produce Methanol and DME (dimethyl ether) (16). In this way, we store and transport liquid electricity, (liquid sunshine) to fuel EVs, marine vessels, trains, drones, and generate stationary, portable, and back-up power. E-fuels produced by carbon dioxide recycling would reduce CO2 emissions by 98%, virtually solving the problem and leading to a sustainable energy ecosystem. There is a precedent in nature, and that’s nature itself. Plants use sunshine, carbon dioxide, and water (CO2+H2O+Electricity) to produce glucose (liquid energy). Water and carbon dioxide become the energy carriers, and the cycle of carbon recycling remains stable without depleting fossil fuels or destroying the environment. How expensive would that be? The cost of producing green methanol through carbon recycling is already at the level of economic feasibility in many Western European countries (9, 15).
As an interim step, natural gas primarily (and even coal) can be converted to methanol. This vvision is promoted by China, India, and many other countries, with billions of subsidies already in the works (8). The initial focus is on commercial EVs with many more coming in 2019. Some companies are already producing hybrid buses that feature half the Li-ion battery, no air pollutants, twice the range, a methanol tank, and a range-extender (electrochemical fuel cell).
The Opportunity and the Problem
Today, China is leading the transition to electric vehicles accounting for 50% of new vehicles and expected to remain close to 40% in the foreseeable future (1). Furthermore, most Chinese manufacturers are fully committed to developing low-cost electric cars, and almost one in five cars sold in China by 2025 will be an EV.
This S-curve rate of growth is going to disrupt the transportation and energy industries. These developments, coupled with a shared autonomous EV fleet model that is gaining traction and feasibility, will change our everyday lives and cities completely. Some futurists (6) predict that the change is going to be even more dramatic and all ICE cars will soon disappear from the roads, primarily because the cost of using a shared EV will be one-tenth of owning a vehicle.
Unfortunately, the EV revolution will have minimal effect on the world climate and GHG emissions at least for the next two decades. This is ironic given that most people in California and Norway buy the EVs with global warming and carbon footprint in mind.
The Problem of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Renewables are growing very fast (natural gas is second) but under optimistic predictions, they will barely meet 20% of the global needs by 2040, while gas, oil, and coal will account for more than 70%.
- China and India (followed by Africa and other non-OECD countries) will be responsible for the increase in energy demand in the following decades (2).
China and India do not have oil, and they are very interested in changing their vehicles to electric for many reasons:
- To grow economically without depending on oil
- To lead the next era of transportation
- To solve the air pollution problem that has become a life and death issue for their citizens.
Breathing the air in Delhi was recently measured as equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes per day, while China was forced to declare war on air pollution in 2014. It still has a long way to go (3), (4), (5).
Unfortunately, for global warming, what China and India do have is coal. Coal is already responsible for more than 60% of the electricity produced in China and India (7), and despite China leading the renewable revolution installations as well, coal use is expected to remain very high for decades to come.
So, all these electric cars will improve air quality (no NOx, SOx pollutants) even on non-OECD megacities but will do little to reduce GHG emissions worldwide. How little? According to some experts even if we switched all cars to electric, in the USA, we would see only a 19% improvement; moreover it would cost trillions in direct cost (and more in indirect) to make this change. The numbers from China show a 12% reduction at best.
The unfortunate scenario we are looking at is coal-fired plants used to power EVs and a transition of four to five decades resulting in insignificant GHG reduction.
We should expect innovation and S-curve Silicon Valley magic to make this transition radically faster on the EV manufacturing side. We can project that we’ll have no problem mass-producing cheap EVs and technology will overcome the problems of lithium and cobalt supply.
On the other hand, history indicates that energy transitions take a century or more. It is one thing to mass-produce electric cars by the millions—we have done this repeatedly in other industries—but switching economies to new energy resources is a very slow process especially when developing countries, that need to feed billions of citizens, are involved. Natural gas entered the picture a century ago and even in the developing world is still in growth mode. The Western world obsesses about ZEVs, while millions of households in India and Africa still burn wood to cook and heat their homes.
Is Hydrogen the Solution?
Some people are betting on hydrogen to become the fuel of the future, but many things work against this prediction, in the short-term at least.
- Perception: Fuel Cells that convert hydrogen to electricity have been around for decades, and the bets on them have not paid off. There is very little to no investment in the USA in fuel cells. Most of the investment is in China, Japan, and South Korea. Sectors without investment cannot attract talent or achieve economies of scale thus falling into a vicious circle.
- Cost is not the problem. Many great companies have made significant progress in making fuel cells affordable. The Department of Energy (12) predicts that by 2020 fuel cells will cost $40/kW for automotive applications. We are at $53/kW now, and most likely we will get there, showcasing an order of magnitude improvement in the last decade.
- Hydrogen is the problem. Or rather the lack of hydrogen. Electrolysis will eventually be cost-effective, and we’ll be able to produce clean and reasonably-priced hydrogen. But hydrogen is hard to transport, it is a gas that needs to be compressed to 700bar, and more importantly, there are no hydrogen refill stations. Given an estimated construction cost of $1.5 million and more per refill station, it would cost trillions of dollars to create a global hydrogen infrastructure just for transportation and dispensing. The investments needed in production and transportation would also be immense.
We are Out of Time
Climate change is here and is causing unprecedented damage. It affects millions of lives, and unless it is reversed, it will have devastating effects on billions of lives and destroy the economy. Unfortunately, such statements have fallen to deaf ears for decades now and have been canceled out by the need for economic growth and energy independence. A recent report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (8) and Stanford (10) describes this as the 3E problem (Economic Growth, Environmental Conservation and Energy Security. The European Commission agrees that a new vision is needed to decarbonize the world as soon as possible (13). We need to think out of the box to achieve convergence of environmental, economic and geopolitical priorities. The proposed roadmap must be bold, address the majority of GHG emissions, not just the PR side of it, and yet achieve balance and foster economic growth.
Methanol: The benefits of a liquid fuel
There is another way to store, transport, and use hydrogen to refill our vehicles and power our economy: Methanol (11). Unlike hydrogen, methanol is liquid, and there is an infrastructure of ships, trucks, trains, to transport and gas stations to dispense liquid fuels. The required investment for switching from oil to methanol for transportation would be minimal. China (8) is estimating that it would require only $10-$15 billion to switch to a methanol infrastructure vs. $3 trillion for hydrogen and $1 trillion for battery infrastructure. These costs multiply by 6x for global infrastructure and in their majority have to be incurred by the poorest regions of the world (not the OECD countries). If we want to be realistic and effective, we need a cost-effective solution for all eight billion of us, starting with the poorest nations.
Various recent reports (10) from China, India, and Western Europe analyze why methanol is the missing piece of the transformation roadmap we need. Methanol complements the advancements in solar, wind, batteries and hydrogen technology, and closes the loop.
What is methanol: Methanol (CH3OH) (11) is the simplest alcohol. It has been used as an alternative fuel on internal combustion engines since the beginning of the automobile industry, and in China, it covers 8% of transportation fueling needs already. It is mostly used in industrial applications, it is considered safer than diesel, hydrogen or other alternatives, and it is biodegradable in water.
Methanol is a liquid fuel thus the already available world network of transportation (ships, trains, trucks) and dispensing (gas stations) would need only small modifications to support it.
How it is produced: Methanol is produced mostly from natural gas (or even coal) currently. Its pricing is highly competitive to gasoline.
Methanol is cleaner now: Even in the case of China, where some methanol is produced from coal, a methanol fuel cell vehicle would produce 44% less CO2 than a diesel one, and surprisingly it would produce 37% less CO2/kWh than a battery vehicle. Also, deriving electricity from methanol via a fuel cell means no high-temperature combustion, and therefore no SOx or NOx pollution.
But the promise of methanol is much bigger: We can produce methanol by combining wind and solar power, CO2, and water, solving the problem of GHG emissions once and for all.
The promise of a sustainable, inexhaustible fuel: Facilities that produce green methanol exist already in Iceland, the Netherlands, and some Asian countries.
Multiple advanced research and development efforts are underway worldwide to reduce the cost. Pilot plants already demonstrate a cost that would be competitive with gasoline in many countries (especially in Western Europe). As the cost of renewable power drops, catalysts and materials improve, and excess capacity at off-peak periods remains underutilized, we can soon expect the cost of green methanol to be widely competitive, especially if demand increases significantly. We can also envision a very efficient cycle where methanol is produced from coal or natural gas, and the resulting carbon dioxide is captured and reused for green methanol production. It will take investment and time, but mass production of green methanol is fifteen or less, not fifty, years away.
The transition to green fuels would result in a carbon neutral ecosystem, very much resembling the way nature itself has recycled CO2 for millions of years. In fact, we would be fully imitating nature, as plants use sunshine, carbon dioxide, and water to produce glucose (their liquid fuel).
Storage and Transportation: Methanol might be a liquid fuel, but it is not an alternative to solar, it is the way to store and transport wind and solar power. The challenge with renewable energy today is not the cost of production that keeps dropping but the cost of storage and transmission. Converting sunshine and wind to liquid alcohol fuels leverages the existing oil economy infrastructure (from gas stations to tankers). Utilizing the current infrastructure minimizes the cost and logistics of transporting a clean fuel while leveraging sunk-in costs.
Liquid fuels have a much higher energy density than batteries or hydrogen. Batteries storing the same energy would be 9 times larger in volume and almost 30 times heavier than methanol. Hydrogen (compressed) would be 14 times larger in volume and 6 times heavier.
Hydrogen would require special equipment for transportation and storage and moreover, the cost of construction per hydrogen refill station is close to $1.5m. There are more than 100,000 gas stations in the USA alone, meaning that the cost of a global hydrogen infrastructure would be in the trillions range. In contrast, converting a gas station to dispense methanol has a minimal cost of around $50,000 in China.
Given the costs of upgrading the grid to transmit the required electricity vs. transporting methanol, the report of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (8) shows infrastructure cost of $10-$15 billion for switching China to a methanol economy vs. $3 trillion for hydrogen, and $1 trillion for battery.
While battery charging stations are not too expensive, many chargers are needed to overcome the long battery charge time, amplifying the effective cost. In addition, some parts of the grid cannot handle enough electricity at peak hours. When it comes to batteries, environmental, recycling, and material availability concerns should also be taken into account. Of course, batteries will play a very important role and electrification is the next industrial revolution, but Li-ion is not the answer to all energy problems. Methanol does not antagonize but complements and accelerates the vision of electrification and reliance on renewable sources for clean energy.
The multiple uses of methanol
Liquid fuels like methanol can address the needs of commercial transportation (marine, trains, trucks, buses), stationary power (combined heat and power), backup, auxiliary and portable power. All of these sectors are significant contributors of GHG emissions
The technology for electrochemically converting methanol to electricity is very similar for all of these applications, and the inflection point will be the mass use in one of these markets. Wide adoption in one market will create needed economies of scale for the rest.
Converting Methanol to Electricity: High-Temperature Fuel Cells
A traditional fuel cell requires as input highly pure hydrogen and air. As hydrogen ions pass through a PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) and are combined with oxygen ions, electricity is generated, and water and heat is the only other output. The PEM technology membranes need water to conduct the ions, so these systems must operate below 100oC (usually at 70 oC) and require ultra-pure “five nines” hydrogen as well as clean air.
In recent years, phosphoric-acid-based PEM technology (also known as high-temperature PEM, HT-PEM) has been developed allowing operation at 160 oC to 180 oC. At these high temperatures, impure hydrogen (98%) can work effectively without poisoning the catalyst. The membrane of HT-PEM is imbibed with phosphoric acid, needs no water for conductivity, and is stable under these temperatures. Therefore, when it comes to transportation or any other application, the resulting system can be designed with a simplified onboard reformer. The overall system consists of a methanol tank (or ethanol, DME, natural gas), an onboard reformer to convert these fuels to impure hydrogen, and an HT-PEM fuel cell that converts low-cost hydrogen to electricity.
Unlike a typical fuel cell system, no high-purity hydrogen is required. Therefore, the system is simpler in design as a variety of water management modules and special cooling systems are not needed. On the negative side, given that HT-PEM technology is still low volume and the companies working on it are smaller, it would require some years and investment to approach the cost of LT-PEM technology. Product development efforts in the area focus in the development of platinum-free or ultra-low platinum catalysts, the improvement of electrode quality and cost, and the development of next-generation membranes that can further improve system efficiency and reliability.
Methanol and HT-PEM Fuel Cell Technology is an add-on to Electrification
The usual debate between fuel cells (electrochemical batteries) and rechargeable batteries (like lithium ion, Li-ion) used to be heated and antagonistic. In recent years, it has become less of a debate as the world is heavily investing in the Li-ion option. Multi-billion investments in new battery factories dictate the immediate future. But as mentioned above, they do not necessarily have a great effect on GHG emissions and global warming, and they can only address effectively one portion of the market (consumer vehicles that are used a few hours a day and can be recharged easily at night at a suburban home). We are a long way from claiming that Li-ion batteries will drive all our transportation needs (especially heavy-transportation like trucks, marine, etc.) or that they are an effective solution for massive energy storage. That said it would also be unrealistic to ignore the progress, the marketing machine, and the investment that is pushing the world toward electrification.
A realistic approach would be to find some areas where we could combine the two in a mutually beneficial way. Here is one of these ideas, that is already in the market and is gaining traction in China.
Trucks, Buses, Taxis, and Utility Vehicles: An example of Methanol Fuel Cells and Li-ion working together
Heavy-use vehicles have been a focus for fuel cell companies as they require to be on the road continuously. Time to recharge (many hours), range, problems with batteries in very cold or very hot weather, and the weight of the batteries required make these a much tougher challenge for the Li-ion BEV market.
A novel approach would be to combine the best of all worlds, and some companies in China and Western Europe are already working in this direction.
A hybrid FCEV solution would mean that the vehicle is equipped with:
- A methanol tank (a mixture of 60% methanol and 40% water).
- A simplified onboard methanol-to-hydrogen reformer and an HT-PEM fuel cell that works as a range-extender.
- A Li-ion battery, significantly smaller in size.
The hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, and that electricity is used to recharge the Li-ion batteries continuously.
What does this solution achieve:
- Range: A bus can go twice as far as before.
- Refill time and flexibility: The vehicle can refill in three minutes (methanol tank) vs. three to eight hours required for recharging. It has both options to recharge or refill based on economics, time-constraints.
- Weight: The weight is reduced significantly as half the Li-ion batteries are used (and still double the range). For trucks or any large vehicle, the power to weight ratio is one of the most important factors.
- Cost: The additional cost of the range-extender required is offset by the drop of Li-ion battery requirement (about half the battery size).
- Extreme weather operation: Li-ion batteries do not charge or discharge effectively during winter time (very cold temperatures) and have shortened life in hot weather.
- Battery charge management: being able to maintain the battery in the optimum charge/discharge state dramatically increases the lifetime of the battery. Deep discharge typically shortens life. Overcharge shortens life. The range extender can charge for optimum battery life on the fly.
This is one of many potential industry applications that combine methanol, high-temperature fuel cells, and Li-ion batteries to achieve the best of all three approaches. The solutions work in synergy, not antagonistically, and also support a path to inexhaustible green fuel use. The electrification S-curve is moving closer and is accelerated through the methanol and fuel-cell add-on range-extender. This way methanol and fuel cells can also help the Li-ion battery ecosystem expand into new applications and market segments. The market of small marine vessels is the next to be considered.
Many vehicles with HT-PEM/battery are already on the road in China and Western Europe. It is a matter of awareness, supply chain development and expansion, and strategic decisions by the manufacturers. While the initial focus is on trucks and buses, the same model would make sense for SUVs, taxis and most large vehicles.
Marine vessels, security and military applications, drones, marine and airplane APUs, portable battery chargers, telecom tower backup systems, combined heat and power (CHP) systems are next. The opportunities for using liquid fuels like methanol to provide clean and cheap energy are endless. Each one of these markets addresses a multibillion-dollar opportunity and an immediate opportunity to cut GHG emissions significantly.
The way forward
The methanol economy (15), proposed in the 1990s by Nobel prize winner George A. Olah, advocates that methanol and dimethyl ether (DME) can replace fossil fuels in the energy storage, and transportation markets.