17/05/2011

Methanol: Uses and Applications

 

Methanol is the simplest alcohol, which contains only one carbon atom (CH3OH). It is also known as wood alcohol, it is a colorless liquid that can be produced from different feedstock resources, predominately from natural gas and coal.

Methanol has believed to have been first discovered in 1661. In 1923, synthetic methanol was firstly produced in the US. The first methanol plant was first commissioned in the US in 1966. Since then the market became increasingly competitive.

The methanol business is truly global. Everyday thousands of magic tons of methanol are shipped across the oceans and the figures are rising.

Today, China established itself as the driver of the global methanol industry. The country became the world’s largest methanol producer and consumer with a production capacity reaching about 40 million tons, of which the capacity of natural gas to methanol is just 10 million tons (25%), while that from coal to methanol has the largest share almost 30 million tons (75%). It also leads the world in the use of methanol as an alternative transportation fuel blending nearly 3 million tons of methanol in gasoline. Most of the taxies and buses in China run on high methanol blends (M-85 to M-100).

additionally, the total world production capacity of methanol excluding China has exceeded 40 million tons and continues to grow every year due to its high demand in the polymer (plastic) and petrochemical industries worldwide.  

Several new plants have been constructed in areas where natural gas is available and cheap like in the Middle East. The Middle East Countries produces about ten million tons of methanol annually. In other words, about 1/4 of China’s total production capacity of methanol which is considered as a very good share, of which the capacity of methanol produced in Saudi Arabia is 6 million tons, which is 3 times the amount of methanol produced in Oman. In Oman, 1 million ton of methanol is produced by Oman Methanol Company which is based in Sohar and the other 1 million ton is produced by Salalah Methanol Company which is located in Salalah. Qatar also produces 2 million tons of methanol every year, of which 1 million ton is used as a feedstock for producing a fuel additive (MTBE). Most of the methanol which is produced in Oman is exported to China.

Today, methanol sells for roughly (US$450) per metric ton, while wholesale gasoline costs nearly two as much at (US$900) per metric ton. Of course, not to forget that the gasoline price in Oman is subsidized by the government in fuel station and this is why we fill our cars’ tanks with a constant price almost (US$450) per metric ton.

Methanol is a building block in everyday life for hundreds of essential chemical commodities. In approximate order of decreasing consumption, products generated from methanol include formaldehyde, dimethyl ether (DME), methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), acetic acid, dimethyl trephthalic acid (DMT), olefins (ethylene and propylene) and etc.

Roughly, (37%) of methanol is converted to formaldehyde (CH2O). Formaldehyde has huge applications especially in the polymer (plastic) industry to make formaldehyde-based resins which to be used in the textile industry.

Nearly, (22%) of methanol is used for making DME (CH3OCH3) which can be used to substitute liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) the cooking gas, as fuel in household and industry. China is considered as the largest consumer of DME for this purpose.

Almost, (17%) of methanol is converted MTBE which is used a gasoline additive, used as oxygenate and increases the octane rating of a vehicle. This in fact helps reduce the pollutants like nitric oxides (NOs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from the car’s exhaust. On the other hand, MTBE has been found to contaminate the underground water when leaking. Due to this reason, it has been banned from use in the US and most of Europe Countries. But, MTBE is still used in the Middle East and elsewhere and its use is even growing today.

About (11%), of methanol is converted to acetic acid (CH3COOH). Around, (90%) of the consumed acetic acid today is made from methanol, the rest is made from ethanol. Vinegar is an acidic acid produced mainly by the fermentation of ethanol. Acidic acid made for use in the chemical industry is made mainly from methanol. US is the largest consumer of acetic acid, consuming over (50%) of the world production of acetic acid. Acetic acid has huge applications in the plastic industry. The major use of acetic acid is for the production of vinyl acetate which is used for making (PVC) which we use for making plastic pipes and other applications. Acetic acid is also used as a solvent in making the (PET), the type of plastic used for making drinking water bottles. In Oman, there is one PET manufacture based in Salalah called OCTAL. 

Additionally, methanol is used for making Dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) which is the main monomer in making PET bottles. Also, methanol is used to make olefins like propylene and ethylene because of the huge demand of olefin. Propylene and ethylene are monomers for making polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) respectively, which we use for making most of the types of plastics we consume today like bags, chairs, containers, bottles, jugs and many other applications. About 2/3 of the plastics used today are PP and PE. PE is also used to make ethylene glycol which is used as antifreeze as well. 

Methanol can also be used as antifreeze due to its very low freezing point which reaches to (-98oC). It can be mixed with water in car radiator in areas where temperature goes way below (-0oC) like in Russia, Europe, Canada and US. So, it will keep the water in the liquid form no matter how cold the weather is. There are lots of uses and applications for methanol all over the world. It is a non-stop industry.

So, if we as human beings cannot live without water! Most of the petrochemical industries would not really survive without methanol! Methanol is the soul of the petrochemical industries.

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