On our future and methanol economy

Today I learned that my good friends and former mentors (can they ever be “former”, though?), Professors Prakash and Olah of USC, jointly received Israel’s 2013 Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation for their work in the area of methanol economy (http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-usc-professors-win-1-million-israeli-prize-for-energy-research-20131016,0,803168.story). Some words about the concept of methanol economy are in order. As Prakash likes to point out, despite the hysteria in the mass media, there is no shortage of energy on earth. Indeed, we have way too many energy-rich covalent bonds on our planet. Rather, there is definitely a shortage of convenient CARRIERS of energy, which is why modern energy research is akin to a gold rush. There are many ideas bouncing around and there are people who support vastly different views on how we will all try to survive given the shortage of cheap carriers. Methanol economy is the concept that has been advanced by Olah and Prakash over the past 15 years. If I were asked to sum it up, I would show something like this:


In methanol economy, methanol would be generated from methane and would be used as either a commodity chemical to access materials (using a number of known processes) or as a fuel. Electrochemical oxidation of methanol would provide energy plus carbon dioxide and water as by-products. Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas and so is methane. However, carbon dioxide reduction would allow for “feedback” within the loop shown above, provided that conversion back to methanol is cost-efficient. Because the carbon dioxide “input” comes from a variety of sources, closing this loop to make methanol (the simplest “C1” fuel) is a very worthy goal.

As we all know, there are also proponents of hydrogen economy. I still remember our group meetings from the middle of 1990’s when Olah would make a very simple and convincing point that not too many people would be thrilled to ride on a tank of compressed hydrogen in their cars. Who knows, though, we will see how it all develops. I do like the methanol economy idea because of its simple C1 link to carbon dioxide, which is one of the culprits behind global warming.

With that I want to congratulate Prakash and Olah one more time for their relentless efforts to advance the idea of methanol economy, which was recognized earlier today. Not bad for the city of Los Angeles – a Nobel to Warshel last week and this recognition to Prakash and Olah! By the way, here is a great book that talks about the methanol economy concept at length:


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