As India pursues net-zero targets, it is time to maximise the use of methanol as a fuel. Not only could it cut down on greenhouse gases (GHGs) but also slash India’s fuel import bill. More importantly it could serve as a bridge towards finally transitioning to more eco-friendly hydrogen-based fuel systems.

It was in 2016, following a Niti Aayog’s initiative, that methanol emerged as a strategic fuel option along with hydrogen and ethanol. Significantly, methanol as a blended fuel can be used across several sectors including surface transportation and in shipping. This clean fuel reduces CO2 emissions by 95 per cent as well as reduces emissions of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. It can be produced from coal, natural gas and from syngas— primarily a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Energy transition

Methanol’s role as a transition fuel cannot be overemphasised. As Prakriti Sethi, Chief India Representative of the Methanol Institute, the global trade association representing the methanol industry, points out, “With countries stepping up efforts to achieve net-zero carbon economies, it is imperative to focus on immediate solutions that can support energy transition. Methanol is an immediate solution that can support growing energy needs and facilitate the transition.”

Methanol is the simplest of aliphatic alcohols. It causes less emissions and is now being used alongside fuels like petrol. In addition, a high-octane value methanol produces better acceleration and torque than fuels like ethanol. It is also safer to transport as it has a lower inflammatory risk compared to refined petroleum. Since it is the least expensive alternative fuel it has gained traction in several countries and is expected to play a major role in India.

Generated from waste

It is not only a clean fuel, but it can also be generated from waste. Notes Prakriti Sethi: “Methanol can have extremely low greenhouse gas intensities if produced from renewable feedstocks such as agricultural waste and municipal solid waste and captured carbon dioxide with green hydrogen. Hard to abate industries including chemicals and shipping have touted renewable methanol as a promising solution for reducing GHG footprint.”

In fact, industries such as steel, cement, and power utilities can reduce emissions by producing renewable methanol from carbon dioxide emissions captured at their facilities. While earlier a few major fertiliser companies such as Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizer & Chemicals , National Fertilizers were producing methanol from CO2 emissions, now others such as Coal India, Indian Oil and NTPC have initiated moves to follow suit.

NTPC has invited bids for a methanol synthesis plant at its power generation facility at Vindhyachal, Madhya Pradesh. It has set up a pilot plant to demonstrate an environment-friendly technology for producing green fuels and chemicals. Tata Steel India has indicated its intentions to use larger carbon capture units to produce green chemicals like methanol.

Fuel for vehicles

Since methanol is a versatile, widely available and affordable alternative transportation fuel, the stage has also been set for methanol fuel vehicles in India with the introduction of M15 standards by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in 2018. Indian Oil recently rolled out a M15 pilot with 15 per cent blend of methanol with petrol in Tinsukia district of Assam.

In 2021, Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) along with some automobile companies — Hero MotoCorp, Bajaj Auto, TVS, Honda Motorcycle and Scooter launched the trials of M15 two-wheelers under the Methanol Economy Programme spearheaded by NITI Aayog.

As an excellent hydrogen carrier, methanol can also be converted or reformed to produce hydrogen which can be utilised to generate clean electricity for cell phone towers, construction sites or ocean buoys. The Indian Army has a history of utilising methanol fuel cells for backup power generation in remote regions.

According to Niti Aayog, methanol is an alternate energy source which will help India achieve a self-sufficient and sustainable energy landscape.