INSIGHT: US rule to open new path for methanol

21 August 2007 16:36  [Source: ICIS news]

New methanol market set for take offBy Joe Kamalick


WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Within weeks US officials will rule that laptop computers powered by fuel cells may be carried on board airliners, marking the first step toward a major new methanol market that ultimately could include transportation fuels.


The US Department of Transportation (DoT) said it will issue a proposed rule by the end of September allowing airline passengers to carry fuel cell cartridges on board. The rule will likely be finalised before the end of this year and take effect early in 2008.


That regulatory move will bring the US in step with most other industrialised countries that have already authorised the use of methanol-powered fuel cells in consumer electronics in airliner passenger compartments.


The US action is important because until the government approves methanol-powered fuel cell electronics for airline passenger cabins, major manufacturers are reluctant to ramp up full production of laptops, cellphones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) that run on methanol.


For the fuel cell industry and methanol producers, this will be a big deal.


“Being able to carry these devices on board airliners is critical,” said Greg Dolan, vice-president for communications and policy at the Methanol Institute.


Dolan and others expect methanol-powered fuel cells will quickly gain wide consumer acceptance because the technology will allow laptops and other portable consumer electronic devices to operate for weeks, even months, on a single methanol fuel cartridge.


Although prototype designs vary, each methanol fuel cartridge will likely be about the diameter of a pencil and perhaps two inches long. Once a cartridge is emptied, the user need only pop in another one.


Methanol fuel cell-powered laptops will initially be more expensive than their battery-powered counterparts, but Dolan says the long-life appeal of the fuel cell device will accelerate consumer acceptance and bring costs down as production increases to meet demand.


With US regulatory approval for on-board fuel cell use, Dolan anticipates a rapid deployment of the technology.  “You could see methanol fuel cell cartridges next to double-A batteries in stores within a few years,” he said.


Jack Brouwer, associate director at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, said the anticipated regulatory approval from the DoT is a major development. 


“For a federal agency to accept this technology is really quite significant,” Brouwer said. “In addition, as a matter of consumer perception, I think this will be huge,” he said.


For the methanol industry, the spread of methanol-powered portable electronics is significant not so much for the additional demand but for its psychological impact on consumers and the huge follow-up potential for methanol as the power source for automotive fuel cells.


Each fuel cell-powered laptop or cellphone will consume tiny amounts of methanol.  A laptop fuel cartridge containing a few ounces of methanol might last a month or two.


Even so, the additional methanol consumption could add up to some significant numbers in the long term, according to fuel cell manufacturer Johnson Matthey. The company estimated that within half-a-dozen years there might be well over 1bn cellphones and 500m notebook computers running on methanol fuel cells, consuming about 730,000 tonnes/year.


Current North American methanol consumption is around 8m tonnes/year. Worldwide consumption is about 40m tonnes/year.


The real payoff for methanol fuel cell consumption could come, however, in transportation uses.


US and other automobile manufacturers are focused now on using gaseous hydrogen as the principal power source for automobile fuel cells, but the Methanol Institute’s Dolan and others believe that methanol ultimately will replace pure hydrogen as the preferred juice for fuel cell-powered automobiles.


Dolan argues that gaseous hydrogen poses major problems in handling and weight. For efficient, long-range auto use, hydrogen will have to be stored in cars in high-pressure tanks.


Those tanks will add a lot of weight to cars, Dolan notes, and the technical process of adding hydrogen to a high-pressure tank may prove daunting compared with the simplicity of methanol fuelling, which would be just like familiar gasoline pumping.


That is why the imminent roll-out of methanol-powered consumer electronics is seen as so significant.


“By the time fuel-cell automobiles are ready for market, say by 2015 or 2018, consumers will already be well familiar with methanol-powered fuel cells in laptops, cellphones and portable generators,” Dolan said.


“They will have first-hand, daily experience with methanol fuel cells and a certain level of comfort with that technology,” Dolan said. As a consequence, “we think there will be a good deal of consumer pull in the market for methanol fuel cells as an automotive power system”, he said.


The US Fuel Cell Council expects wide availability of methanol-fuelled consumer electronics by the end of next year.

By: Joe Kamalick
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