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Eni’s methanol economy

Eni signs agreements for the application of innovative technologies to synthesize methanol from renewable sources and reduce emissions.

by Livia Formisani
09 March 2020
5 min read
by Livia Formisani
09 March 2020
5 min read

A favorite of race car drivers, methanol is a highly versatile fuel with better efficiency than gasoline. Less expensive than the latter and safer to handle than hydrogen, it also powers industrial machines and electrical power plants. As innovative production technologies to synthesize methanol from renewable sources make the news—from CO2 to carbon nanotubes and the artificial leaf—Eni announces three new partnerships in this exciting field.
Race car drivers know it well: methanol increases an engine's energy efficiency, allowing for their turbocharging and supercharging, among other things. Not just that: the highly versatile fuel has countless applications, from electricity production to powering industrial machinery. It is also used as a feedstock for plastic production and as a solvent in the chemical industry. And it is safer to transport and handle than natural gas and hydrogen.
As methanol burns in a more efficient way than gasoline, it also emits less carbon monoxide and other pollutants, including particulate matter. What's more, methanol can be produced from renewable sources such as solid urban waste, and transported using the existing gasoline infrastructure with no need to adapt it, something which cannot be done with hydrogen.
The best news is methanol can be synthesised from CO2 itself. Under the right conditions, it can gain a very prominent place in a circular economy, allowing us to reuse the same CO2 we produce (for instance, in industrial settings). But its potential is even bigger: by producing methanol from CO2, we would be taking what now is waste—in the stronger sense of the word—and turning it into a chemical raw material.
This is the idea at the core of chemist George Olah's 2006 bestseller “Beyond Oil and Gas: the Methanol Economy". In it, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner makes the case for a methanol economy—one in which methanol synthesised from renewable sources is used as primary energy vector to lessen dependency from finite fossil resources such as oil and coal.
In 2019, methanol has been a major focus of Eni's R&D program “Energy Transition". The company recently announced three new partnerships for methanol production, of which two use renewable sources.


Professor Olah, awarded with the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, advocated for a "methanol economy"

Waste to energy: Eni & Maire Tecnimont

Maire Tecnimont is an Italian group of 50 companies operating in engineering and main contracting. Its green chemistry subsidiary NextChem and Eni recently signed an agreement to develop and implement a conversion strategy to turn solid urban waste and non-recyclable plastic into hydrogen and methanol with minimal environmental impact. The waste will be processed using high-temperature gasification in Eni's Venice bio-refinery (Porto Marghera)—a fitting move, as this was the world's first traditional refinery to be converted into a bio-refinery.

CO2 to methanol: Eni & ETH Zurich

Eni and Synhelion, a spin-off of world-class ETH Zurich University, are developing a new technology to produce methanol from CO2, water and methane using solar energy. The two companies announced the joint effort in June 2019, and will be using CO2 from industrial waste material as a key feedstock. Preliminary data by Eni also show that the project will cut over 50% of emissions released in conventional methanol production.

LNG to methanol: Eni & SABIC

In February 2019, Eni and SABIC announced a partnership to convert natural gas into synthesis gas and subsequently methanol, in a joint cutting-edge R&D effort. Currently, most of methanol is produced from natural gas, and although the latter is not renewable, it is the cleanest form of fossil fuel and it is widely diffused.
The joint technology, according to Eni, will be "a truly innovative way of making synthesis gas" to achieve, among other things, higher energy efficiency, lower CO2 footprint and wide feedstock flexibility compared to conventional production methods.

Great chemical properties, lower production costs, zero dependency on a particular feedstock and lower well-to-wheel CO2 emissions make methanol a great fuel for the transition period we live in—one we can use without significantly modifying our cars or industrial machines.
In the medium- and long-term, however, it could become the universal energy vector from renewable sources Olah hoped for. The number of technologies focusing on methanol, such as the ones at the heart of Eni's new partnerships, but also the “artificial leaf” using sunlight to turn CO2 into fuel, or the usage of carbon nanotubes to convert CO2 into methanol are definitely indicators of a renewed global interest in this energy vector.