TR: This would help address the problem of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, wouldn’t it?
GO: Sequestration [of carbon dioxide] is our [government’s] official policy and this is what everybody is swearing by. They say that you stick carbon dioxide down into the earth and at the bottom of the sea, and you solve the problem. [But] how long will it stay down there? Carbon dioxide is a very volatile material. Under the best of conditions it eventually will seep up. Our approach is very different: we simply say that if we need to dispose of carbon dioxide, we need to capture it – why not use it as a chemical raw material? In other words, recycle it.
TR: We’ve heard a lot lately about replacing gasoline with ethanol from biological sources and developing better batteries for super-efficient hybrid cars. Do these have a place in a methanol economy?
GO: I think we should explore all possibilities. There is no silver bullet. There is no single solution. I sincerely believe, however, that if you look really impartially, but hard-nosed, at the figures, the needs are so enormous that biological sources per se won’t solve them. The president mentioned making ethanol from cellulosic materials. In principle it’s possible, but it’s a very difficult, undeveloped, and, in my mind, unrealistic technology. Batteries, sure, we should try to find better batteries. But realistically today, fuel cells are a lot more convenient than any battery.
TR: What steps need to be taken now to move toward a methanol economy?
GO: I’m a great believer that technological development is done by major companies. ExxonMobil certainly has some means to do it. The only trouble is that so far they are not coming up with any reasonable solution. Basically, I don’t think they like [the methanol economy] very much. If you sit on a large supply of oil and gas, on which you make enormous profits, or if you are an Arab country that has great supplies and great wealth, you wouldn’t welcome some crazy guy who comes up and says that mankind can have an ultimate solution which would not be dependent, anymore, on what nature put under your soil.
If this methanol economy makes sense, and I think it does, there is not necessarily a monopoly any more for oil companies. Big chemical companies could equally well do this, or even better. But there is also a need for politicians and the public to say that they want to explore reasonable solutions.
TR: How urgent is the problem?
GO: Man began to use coal on a massive scale during the Industrial Revolution, which was, what, 250 years ago. And we are already, to a very significant degree, depleting what nature gave us. Now, I’m not saying we’ll run out of it overnight, but we need to think about how we manage our problems now and how we will manage in the future.
You see natural gas getting in short supply, and we import liquefied natural gas. There are many natural gas sources – Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, the North Sea, and so on. The energy content of a single LNG tanker is equivalent to a medium-sized hydrogen bomb. Bad guys are trying to blow up refineries now, and a big tanker is a very inviting target. Who can guarantee that some crazy terrorist won’t blow up an LNG tanker? I think a realistic solution is, again, to convert natural gas, as efficiently as we can, into a safe liquid product, like methanol.
All people believe that what they are doing has some importance; but this [methanol research] is, in my mind, the most important thing I ever did in my career, and it has serious implications for society.
Home page image courtesy of the University of Southern California.