Energy independence: Only a methanol hybrid away

Methane and natural gas a perfect bridge to a sustainable world.

Natural gas today, methanogenesis tomorrow?

Time to get serious about natural gas

A new report out of MIT suggests that significant reductions in CO2 emissions and foreign oil consumption are achievable using natural gas to replace coal, while converting natural gas into methanol for transportation.

While natural gas could have a huge impact on reducing CO2 emissions from coal-generated electricity, it would not have the same impact for transportation, but hybrid technology could change that.

Based on a two-year study, MIT found that natural gas could play a leading role in reducing CO2 emissions by replacing old, inefficient coal plants. Likewise, while the study found that natural gas offers possibilities as a transportation fuel, it's role would be limited because of the excess costs in converting gasoline vehicles to run on natural gas. Instead, MIT suggests that natural gas could be converted into methanol to reduce foreign energy dependence, although CO2 emissions would be unchanged.

Of course, couldn't methanol-fueled vehicles coupled with hybrid technology help reduce CO2 emissions, while also advancing battery technologies?

Moreover, methanol could be a great path towards fuel cell vehicles and the organic production of methanol via methanogenesis, for instance. In addition, natural gas electrified plug-in vehicles would also be much cleaner than coal-powered plug-in vehicles.

And, while natural gas might not make sense in the personal transportation industry (although I'm sure there are many in South America that would disagree) something like the Pickens plan – with its focus on large, cross country transportation – might make sense. Plus, such a plan could also be coupled with a very basic natural gas-reformatted-into-hydrogen fueling infrastructure as well.

None of this means that natural gas is the future. It is not, but the US alone has enough natural gas to power up for 100 years – providing significant amounts of time to develop nuclear, solar, wind, etc, while reducing CO2 emissions and foreign oil consumption. Oh yeah, and jobs.

Furthermore, natural isn't just a fuel, it's a technological enabler. For example, a stronger focus on natural gas would push the coal industry to make massive investments in coal sequestration, for instance, if the coal industry wants to try to compete with natural gas. Likewise, a significant focus on natural gas could help develop different types of fuel cells, and make wind and solar power more cost-effective through more efficient base-load cycling. And, ironically, natural gas could itself one day be replaced by organically produced methanol generated from methanogenesis.

Ultimately, natural gas can be about much more than natural gas, and a strong move towards natural gas might actually lead to a technological breakthrough that crushes the need for natural gas as a fuel, and that might be its greatest quality.

“While the new report emphasized the great potential for natural gas as a transitional fuel to help curb greenhouse gases and dependence on oil, it also stresses that it is important as a matter of national policy not to favor any one fuel or energy source in a way that puts others at a disadvantage. The most useful policies, the authors suggested, are ones that produce a truly “level playing field” for all forms of energy supply and for demand reduction, and thus let the marketplace, and the ingenuity of the nation’s researchers, determine the best options,” notes GreenCarCongress.

“Level playing field”. I love that. Neither the government, nor the distinguished scientists at MIT – or anywhere else for the matter – can predict the evolution of technology.

While some might argue that cap and trade would be the perfect solution for a “level playing field”, I couldn't disagree more. Cap and trade would be a porkfest, possibly the biggest ever – that's simply the way Congress does business, regardless of party, and we the people should already know that. If carbon is the key, then a carbon tax is the only way to sleigh the pig.

Unfortunately, however, a carbon tax might be even less popular than cap and trade these days. Thus, America is between a rock and a hard place.

So, why not give natural gas a serious try? Or, why not at least give natural gas the kind of “level playing field” that not just Boone Pickens has spent years calling for, but now also MIT? Minimally, it seems, a stronger embrace of natural gas would be a significant first step towards a much more “level playing field.”

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