Friday, November 24, 2006

The Methanol Economy

Excellent book review.

The Methanol Alternative
Robert Zubrin
Any serious energy policy must deal with three critical issues. First, economic: The policy must provide an energy resource base sufficient to allow for continued worldwide economic growth for the foreseeable future. Second, environmental: The policy must be compatible with the long-term flourishing of life on Earth, including human life and civilization. And finally, strategic: The policy must ensure that control of the Earth’s energy resources, and thus its future, lies in the hands of free societies committed to human progress, and taken away from tyrannical and terrorism-promoting states.

George Olah, recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is one of the giants of twentieth-century science, and his coauthors are solid technical men. Together they have written a profoundly important book on energy policy, laying out the basis for a technically achievable approach to all three dimensions of the energy problem.

There is no shortage of energy experts with grand designs and proposals—from technophile dreams of an unworkable “hydrogen economy,” to Malthusian calls for enforced economic limits through conservation, to socialist schemes for creating massive government-subsidized synthetic-fuel industries, to the libertarian faith in the Invisible Hand. Compared to such misguided alternatives, the competence and rationality of The Methanol Economy is refreshing.

The authors begin by describing the dimensions of the worldwide energy problem: Even as our reserves of fossil fuels have grown in recent decades, the demand is growing faster, and as more of the world modernizes, a global energy “crunch” looms. From here, they turn their attention to renewable energy sources and nuclear power, and then they offer a thorough refutation of the technical feasibility of the “hydrogen economy.” This widely-touted panacea cannot work because it takes more energy to produce hydrogen than it yields, because hydrogen is an excessively low-density medium for storing chemical energy, and because an entirely new multi-billion-dollar fuel distribution infrastructure would have to be created to support hydrogen vehicles before any could be sold.

The heart of the book outlines a proposed technical solution to the energy problem. The authors don’t propose new ways of generating energy, arguing that “all feasible alternative and renewable energy sources must be considered and used,” nuclear energy “above all.” Instead, they focus on “the challenges of how to store and best use energy.”

The authors dub their proposal the “methanol economy.” Methanol is commonly known as “wood alcohol” because it can be produced from wood; it can also be made from coal, natural gas, methane hydrates, any type of biomass, or urban waste. It can be used as fuel for internal-combustion engines, and eventually in fuel-cell vehicles. It can also be used as feedstock for producing dimethyl ether, an excellent fuel for non-polluting diesel engines. In short, it is a convenient medium for storing energy and is easily transported and dispensed as a fuel.