Methanol: A Fuel for the Future
USC College scholars George Olah and Surya Prakash share a passion for the power and possibilities of the methanol economy.
“The energy conundrum is not about the energy, but its storage and energy carrier problems,” said Prakash, holder of the George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and organic chemistry professor.
In 1977, Olah, the Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and holder of the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry, established the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute housed at USC College.
Olah brought with him Prakash, a brilliant young graduate student working in his laboratory, who completed his Ph.D. in chemistry from USC College in 1978.
Prakash said that most people are unaware that the energy dilemma comes down to the current 390 parts per million or 0.0390 percent of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“By the end of the 19th century, carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was 200 parts per million, but by the 21st century, it had grown to 390 parts per million and is expected to reach 550 parts per million by the end of this century, causing an imbalance.”
Since 1989, Prakash has collaborated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, administered by the California Institute of Technology to develop the methanol fuel cell as part of a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency sought a solution to charge the batteries of the communication equipment of military troops, including the U.S. Army.
In the ’90s and in response to the DARPA request, Prakash, Olah and colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory made a science-altering discovery that has generated a huge intellectual property portfolio.
Explained in a fuel cell demonstration, Prakash shows how electricity is produced with a two-sided (anode and cathode) membrane electrode assembly that he brings with him as he gives talks around the world.
The anode side of the apparatus is injected with two milliliters of 10 percent methanol and water mixture, while the cathode side is exposed to air (oxygen). The chemical energy in methanol on reaction with oxygen in the air at the membrane electrode assembly turns into a very highly efficient DC electricity, producing carbon dioxide and water.
While multiple chemistry projects simultaneously percolate in his lab, Prakash, along with Olah and colleagues at the institute, continue to work on maximizing methanol efficiency and producing methanol from chemical recycling of carbon dioxide.
Prakash noted that Toshiba in Japan has produced two-watt/hour fuel cells for cell phones and laptops, and Smart Fuel Cells in Germany has manufactured similar devices using methanol for the U.S. Army.
“Methanol can also be used to produce diesel substitutes, petrochemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals and agri-chemicals,” Prakash said. “China and Iceland are currently adapting some aspects of the methanol economy, and race cars are already fueled by methanol.”
Prakash foresees methanol powering laptops, cell phones, motorcycles, cars, trucks, locomotives, buses and ultimately homes. “Methanol is the fuel of the future. Its time has come,” Prakash said.
Olah, Prakash and their research associate Alain Goeppert wrote Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, a 2006 science book now in its second edition and translated in five different languages.
Prakash was appointed director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute by USC College Dean Howard Gillman in September, and Olah, the 1994 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, who relinquished his position as the director, was named the institute’s founding director.