Is Biomethanol in Biodiesel's Future?

Biomethanol could offer biodiesel producers the opportunity to be free of fossil fuels. And production cost and timing may be better than previously thought.
By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | March 17, 2008
Methanol makes up a significant portion of the biodiesel process, yet feedstocks and process technology seem to dominate the biodiesel conversation. Unless the topic is safety, methanol has been largely ignored. That's starting to change in light of recent sustainability concerns and technology advances. A new conversation is starting to emerge, and it's about biomethanol.

Biomethanol is simply methanol produced from biomass and other nonfossil sources. Methanol, the alcohol with the simplest chemical structure (CH3OH), is a colorless, tasteless liquid with a faint odor. It is commonly known as wood alcohol and can be produced from a variety of feedstocks. In North America, the most common feedstock is natural gas, while in China they are stepping up production of methanol from coal. Biomethanol projects have used feedstocks such as wood waste, black liquor (a byproduct of the pulping process), methane gas from animal waste and landfills, sugar beet pulp and glycerol.

Biomethanol has a sustainability appeal, which may be a plus for biodiesel producers. Interest in producing biofuels in a sustainable fashion has increased dramatically, and biomethanol could find its niche in the biodiesel industry. "One of the most significant ways to reduce our environmental impact is to identify raw materials that are manufactured responsibly from renewable resources, are regionally produced or further improve our energy balance," says Emily Bockian Landsburg, manager of business development for biodiesel producer Philadelphia Fry-o-Diesel. "Biomethanol is one example. Many environmental risk mitigation strategies are also business risk mitigation strategies. As methanol prices increase alongside the possibility of shortages, diversifying sources in terms of feedstocks and geography will become more and more attractive." Bockian Landsburg was appointed to chair a sustainability task force for the National Biodiesel Board. The appointment was announced in late February at the National Biodiesel Conference in Orlando, Fla.

At least one biodiesel producer has been actively looking for a quality biomethanol to use in its process. "Pacific Biodiesel would definitely support that market," says Kelly King, marketing and communications director of Pacific Biodiesel. She is also the executive director of the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, a nonprofit founded in December 2006 to promote sustainable biodiesel practices and create best practice standards for verifying that all points in the production and distribution chain are in compliance with SBA's certification standards. "Judging by the success of the exhibit booth for the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance at the National Biodiesel Conference, almost everyone is wanting to be more sustainable-from feedstock growers and collectors to biodiesel producers to venture capitalists," she says. "I think any biodiesel producer concerned with sustainability would use biomethanol. I think it would be absolutely more sustainable and could even be something that the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance certification process would recognize."

Some biodiesel producers might even be willing to pay a premium for biomethanol, but not always. "At times, the price of 'regular' methanol has been so high that no one would be able to afford to pay more," she says. "If methanol goes down to its normal levels, Pacific Biodiesel would certainly consider paying a higher rate for renewable methanol. I would even be willing to sign a long-term contract for renewable methanol if it could be priced fairly, and was based on the cost of production-rather than following the price of fossil-fuel-based methanol. Biomethanol would be a significant factor in the sustainability of biodiesel."

Historical methanol prices confirm King's experience. According to records kept since May 2001 by Methanex Corp., a methanol producer and marketer, the price of methanol has fluctuated dramatically in that time. The nondiscounted reference price per gallon hit a low of 36 cents in February 2002 and steadily rose to a high of $2.50 per gallon in December 2007 and January 2008. The first time it broke a dollar was in December 2005. In the past year, the price fluctuated wildly from month to month; at one time the price increased by as much as 74 cents per gallon in one month, and then by another 80 cents over the next two months. In March, the price was down to $1.90 per gallon. The higher prices are caused in part by increasing global demand for energy and skyrocketing oil prices.

According to the Methanol Institute, there are 18 methanol production plants in the United States with a total annual capacity of more than 2.6 billion gallons per year. Worldwide, about 90 methanol plants have the capacity to produce more than 11 billion gallons of methanol annually. There is a handful of companies across Europe and the United States that are producing biomethanol, but their numbers are small in comparison.

Making Methanol
There are two basic steps to producing methanol. The first is to convert the feedstock into a synthesis gas stream, which consists of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water and hydrogen. This is usually accomplished by the catalytic reforming of feed gas and steam, but partial oxidation is another possible route. The second step is the catalytic synthesis of methanol from the synthesis gas. The synthesis gas is fed into a reactor vessel under high pressures and temperatures. In the presence of a catalyst, carbon dioxide and hydrogen combine to produce methanol. Many methanol production facilities use the energy released in the second step to generate electricity needed for the first step.

Like ethanol and biodiesel, biomethanol has been around a long time. In fact, methanol is commonly referred to as wood alcohol because it was made from wood in the early 1900s. Some reports say that as little as 6 gallons of methanol were produced from 1 ton of hardwood, which is why this production method was quickly dropped after natural gas was discovered. It has taken decades for someone to once again pick up the cause for biomethanol.

Development of the alternative fuel has largely been ignored in favor of fuels that are easier or cheaper to convert. Methanol is produced with a gasification system, which is significantly more costly than the process technology required for fermentation into ethanol, for example. Biomethanol has an added layer of challenges. To meet economies of scale, the facilities must be large enough to be able to pay back capital costs. Yet biomass facilities must have an abundant supply of biomass to serve that scale. Traveling too far to collect biomass quickly changes the economics of such a project.

Taking the Gasifier to the Biomass
One group is attempting to address both of these challenges. The Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks received a grant from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund to demonstrate the performance of a mobile biomass gasification system to convert sawdust waste from Valley Forest Wood Products in Marcell, Minn., into biomethanol that can be sold as a fuel for remote-site electric production. The grant's purpose is to create a new electrical source, but the project managers say this research also would develop the technology for distributed methanol production at sawmills, producing approximately 250 gallons per day. Minnesota, with its abundant forest resources and biodiesel plants, would provide a good fit for a biomethanol project, says EERC Senior Research Advisor John Hurley.

The EERC conducted an engineering and economic analysis for the project. The cost varied, depending on the ambitiousness of the plan to pay back the capital costs. "If you're willing to have a 20-year payback and if you operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week for 85 percent of the year, the cost of the methanol would be about 79 cents per gallon," Hurley says. "At the time we did the analysis, the spot price of methanol was $1.80 per gallon." Alternatively, a methanol producer could sell the fuel at the spot price; with that kind of price difference, Hurley says a project could pay off the capital cost fairly quickly.

The EERC project is one of the first near-commercial scale developments of its kind that Hurley is aware of. He says the challenge for biomethanol is scale. Existing methanol plants are huge-some producing as much as 5,000 tons per day. Biomass collection makes this kind of size for biomethanol unfeasible. Thus, the EERC's challenge is to develop distributed biomass utilization systems, or indirect liquefaction systems, that can be used on the biomass scale.

Another hurdle to efficient biomethanol production has been that gasifiers can be picky about feedstocks. "We developed a modification to existing gasification systems that allows us to gasify much wetter wood than could be done in the past," Hurley says. "The gas that's produced has a much higher hydrogen to carbon ratio than other gasifiers, and you need that to efficiently produce liquid fuels."

The demonstration project, led by Hurley with assistance from Darren Schmidt and Nikhil Patel, will take two-years. It is slated to start this July, with the goal of an operational system by June of 2010. "We'll be ready to team with a company to build these in the summer of 2010," Hurley says. Of course, he notes that in the end, the commercial success of the project will depend on the markets. "If the prices are right in two years and a fuel system using wood is a better and cleaner choice, you could see a very large market open up," Hurley says. At that point, the biodiesel industry may be a large share of that market, or it may find itself on the other side. With this distributed model of biomethanol production, individual biodiesel plants could produce just enough biomethanol for their own production.

On a larger scale, some biomethanol facilities are farther along in development, and some are even producing. The challenge for these larger companies is technology development, location (because of biomass harvesting) and up-front capital costs, which all lead to the overall question of economical production. North Shore Energy Technologies, a 40 MMgy biomethanol plant under development in Mississippi, is in the early stages of preliminary engineering. President Rich Mount says the biomethanol market will become more economical if petroleum prices continue to rise as they have been.

Within two years, biodiesel producers may see developments in the biomethanol industry that could make their operations more sustainable and profitable.

Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 738-4962.
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