A new methanol cocktail
The next government clearly needs to design a forward-looking technology policy that leverages recent breakthroughs abroad in commercialising carbon-capture techniques. And, in tandem, we need to boost usage of methanol, which can well be produced from our high ash-content coal, agricultural residue and carbon dioxide emissions from thermal power plants.
Note that methanol (CH3OH) can well be blended with petroleum products like petrol and diesel to bring down costs of transportation fuel, and also reduce attendant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Methanol can also be blended with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and, in October last year, Assam Petro-Chemicals reportedly launched Asia’s first methanol-based cooking fuel scheme.
And, while we seek to shore up technology development and its absorption for methanol production and carbon capture, in parallel, what’s required is stepped-up policy focus on more conventional approaches like afforestation, reforestation and green cover. A more plant-based diet would also help in reducing carbon emissions.
There are still other more international approaches to reducing carbon emissions on a global level, such as strengthened conventions on whaling. A larger whale population in the oceans would lead to increased whale droppings, which are known to be rich in iron concentrations. And, which, in turn, would bring about growth in phytoplankton, and raise absorption of carbon from the atmosphere.
The next government needs to boost path-breaking policy initiatives for the methanol economy, so as to increase our energy security, lower costs of hydrocarbons and reduce emissions. Reports say that there’s a research and development programme underway at IIT Delhi, Thermax and Bhel units in Hyderabad and Trichy, to set up coal-to-methanol plants using indigenous technology.
The policy attention on methanol needs stepping up as it can be blended with automotive fuel and cooking gas. The expert opinion is that 15-20% methanol blending of petrol and diesel would bring about a commensurate reduction in crude oil imports. Such blended fuel would significantly reduce GHG emissions and harmful particulate matter fallout as well. Further, methanol blended with LPG would considerably reduce costs and improve its supply in the bargain.
The way forward is to take advantage of recent improvements in carbon capture technology, and join hands with leading developers abroad to develop low-cost solutions to neatly absorb carbon emissions at our thermal plants. We need to develop technology to absorb and use carbon produced by fuel combustion at power stations, and with modular systems, which can be retrofitted in functional plants.
The objective ought to be to augment methanol output with carbon capture in thermal power plants and its use in methanol production. We do need to absorb the emerging technology of carbon capture and use, and not only to systematically reduce GHG emissions going forward. The ‘by-product’ would add to methanol output in the here and now. Further, mastering carbon capture technology, and not just from thermal stations, but ultimately from ambient air, can well lead to new materials and carbon fibres in the medium term and beyond.
Note that new materials like C-60, a carbon molecule with 60 atoms, have been identified (and more than one Nobel Prize won for the effort). Note also that C-60 has material strength stronger than steel and is lighter than aluminium, and its commercial production can revolutionise entire industries like aviation. For instance, a plane made with C-60 would simply glide, if and when there’s engine failure.
The point is that it would be in our competitive advantage to better allocate resources to capture and make use of carbon emissions, even as we take proactive steps to arrest global warming and tackle climate change. It would make perfect sense to stem emission levels while shoring up expertise in fuel blending and new materials.
The facts suggest that atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide globally has risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) in circa 1750, to as much as 407 ppm in 2017.
The higher GHG emissions have led to global warming and climate change. The figures suggest that, already, average global temperatures have risen by a full 1° C, and are now known to be rising by nearly 0.2° C per decade.
Hence the pressing need for a low-emissions economy, and the requirement to boost energy security even as we arrest carbon emissions. It calls for a visionary integrated technology policy for energy and carbon capture that would be both cost-effective and useful for current generating plants. We do need reinvigorated policy focus on the entire carbon cycle and its reuse, even as we rev up renewable energy output.