Today, the leading company making methanol from carbon dioxide is Carbon Recycling International, an Icelandic company. Geely invested in CRI in 2015, and they have partnered to build the world’s largest CO2-to-fuel factory in China. When it’s running, it could recycle 160,000 tons of CO2 emissions from steel plants every year.
The potential for clean production is what makes methanol desirable as a fuel. It’s not just a more efficient way to use energy, but also a way to remove existing CO2 from the air. To reach carbon neutrality by 2060, as China has promised, the country cannot put all its eggs in one basket, like EVs. Popularizing the use of methanol fuel and the clean production of methanol may enable China to hit its target sooner.
Can methanol move beyond its dirty roots?
But the future is not all bright and green. Currently, the majority of methanol in China is still made by burning coal. In fact, the ability to power cars with coal instead of oil, which China doesn’t have much of, was a major reason the country pursued methanol in the first place. Today, the Chinese provinces that lead in methanol-car experiments are also the ones that have abundant coal resources.
But as Bromberg says, unlike gas and diesel, at least methanol has the potential to be green. The production of methanol may still have a high carbon footprint today, just as most EVs in China are still powered by electricity generated from coal. But there is a path to transition from coal-produced methanol to renewables-produced methanol.
“If that is not an intention—if people are not going to pursue low-carbon methanol—you really don’t want to implement methanol at all,” Bromberg says.
Methanol fuel also has other potential drawbacks. It has a lower energy density than gasoline or diesel, requiring bigger, heavier fuel tanks—or drivers may need to refuel more often. This also effectively prevents methanol from being used as an airplane fuel.
What’s more, methanol is severely toxic when ingested and moderately so when inhaled or when people are exposed to it in large amounts. The potential harm was a big concern during the pilot program, although the researchers concluded that methanol proved no more toxic to participants than gas.
Beyond China, some other countries, like Germany and Denmark, are also exploring the potential of methanol fuels. China, though, is at least one step ahead of the rest—even if it remains a big question whether it will replicate its success in developing EVs or follow the path of another country with a major auto industry.
In 1982, California offered subsidies for car manufacturers to make over 900 methanol cars in a pilot program. The Reagan administration even pushed for the Alternative Motor Fuels Act to promote the use of methanol. But a lack of advocacy and the falling price of gasoline prevented further research of methanol fuel, and pilot drivers, while generally satisfied with their cars’ performance, complained about the availability of methanol fuel and the smaller range compared to gas cars. California officially ended the use of methanol cars in 2005, and there’s been no such experimentation in the US since.