New method create next fuel-efficient renewable energy developed
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New method to create next fuel-efficient renewable energy developed

5:57 AM, 21st July 2017
New method to create next fuel-efficient renewable energy developed
The fossil fuel fight goes on for USC scientists as they develop a new method for creating reversible hydrogen storage based on methanol, with no carbon emissions, in the last major paper co-authored by USC's first Nobel laureate, the late George Olah.

Scientists have long struggled with generating and storing hydrogen, the kind that might one day provide the backbone for renewable energy fuel cells that make our cars move, warm our houses and help produce food, in a way that also won’t hasten climate change or otherwise harm the environment.

In research published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, chemists at the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute outlined a carbon-neutral method for doing just that, with a little help from the simplest alcohol known to man: methanol.

Senior author G K Surya Prakash, 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner George Olah in his last major paper and their team at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences devised a way to produce and store hydrogen from methanol, without concurrent production of either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, by trapping it in organic derivatives of ammonia called amines.

The well-known steam reforming process usually used to extract hydrogen from methanol, called the methanol reformer, traditionally produces carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as part of this extraction process. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that causes global warming and ocean acidification.

The research demonstrates just one more way carbon has been freed from the cycle of creating and storing fuels via methanol, supporting Olah and Prakash’s long-standing vision of a completely renewable “methanol economy.”

“The Methanol Economy” is a concept that the Olah-Prakash team first began refining in the mid-1990s. According to Olah and Prakash, the goal of a methanol-based economy would be to develop renewable sources of energy, led by methanol, that could mitigate the problem of climate change caused by carbon emissions, as well as the US dependence on other countries for energy, particularly oil.

When Olah and Prakash began their research, global consumption of oil was around 70 million barrels; that number is expected to be about 100 million as early as next year.

The research of Prakash, Olah and their team has been focused on finding a way to extract hydrogen fuel from methanol in ways that are not only carbon-neutral but can even be carbon-positive.

A very simple fuel source

Methanol, sometimes called “wood alcohol,” is the simplest alcohol that can be produced, requiring only water, carbon dioxide and energy.

While methanol stores half the energy of traditional petroleum-based gasoline, the light that burns half as bright also burns more cleanly.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the combustion of methanol also generally produces less deleterious greenhouse gases in the form of nitrogen oxides.

Methanol quickly biodegrades. It has traditionally been produced from natural gas and can be corrosive to older automobile tubing and casing, though much less so to newer generations of automobiles. Methanol is a more efficient fuel to replace gasoline or diesel, but it provides fewer miles to the gallon because of its lower energy density.

Methanol has also long been prized by race car drivers for its higher octane on shorter tracks and because it produces clearer smoke, preventing pileups. Also, unlike typical petroleum-based gasoline, water is effective in fighting methanol-based fires, though those clean-burning fires often appear invisible in daylight. However, additives can also easily be added to methanol to increase visibility.

Methanol is also already employed in the raw chemical production of all petroleum-based chemicals and products.

© USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute


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