Methanol to Hydrogen: Can it help the aviation industry’s green journey take flight?

Hydrogen continues to play an important part in the conversation around clean fuels, and with good reason. As aviation looks to lower its carbon footprint, does hydrogen offer a viable path? If so, what role can hydrogen play in helping decarbonization to truly take-off in the industry?

The potential for hydrogen to play a significant role in advanced aircraft propulsion is widely recognized. But when it comes to the production of hydrogen, the DoE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy talks about the more common hydrogen production avenues of natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, solar and wind energy. However, one area that perhaps isn’t getting the attention it warrants is Methanol.

Methanol is one of the more attractive methods for making hydrogen as it offers unique advantages compared to its production counterparts. From logistical issues and clean processes through to scalable production, infrastructure reliance or the financial aspect of producing hydrogen, methanol as a carrier for fuel-cell grade hydrogen generation can help overcome some of the existing obstacles that the aviation industry is facing when it comes to clean fuels.

Logistically, the transportation of hydrogen as a clean fuel offers several challenges. Methanol, however, is a liquid under all reasonable environmental conditions and can be transported using lightweight and inexpensive conformal fuel tanks. It has more useful hydrogen in it volumetrically than liquid hydrogen, so if you treat methanol as the starting point for hydrogen creation, then the next puzzle you look to solve is the infrastructure. Fortunately, the infrastructure to transport hydrogen anywhere (globally or locally) exists now at every region of the world.

One area where methanol-to-hydrogen can play an important role now is in hydrogen refueling and battery-electric aircraft recharging operations. The refueling and recharging infrastructure at airports and vertiports is a challenge. Methanol facilitates the buildout of scalable hydrogen refueling infrastructure. Alternatively, methanol-to-hydrogen enables the operation of fuel cells to generate electricity for battery charging (and other operations) without reliance on the electrical grid. Being grid-independent allows flight operations to be scaled in a shorter timeframe and with lower investment costs.

The financial investment is naturally a key consideration for the aviation industry when it comes to adopting viable, cleaner fuel sources. Compared to other existing methods, the process for utilizing methanol for hydrogen fueling and/or electrical power generation (grid independent) is cost effective. Element 1 technology allows you to make hydrogen via methanol on-site, where it is going to be used, resulting in a 50-70% reduction in cost of hydrogen per kilogram.

The green, clean credentials for methanol are evident. As the discussion regarding hydrogen continues, it’s important that we monitor the methods used to produce hydrogen in the first place. The aviation industry should be wary of ‘race to the bottom’ philosophy and instead establish and support practices that truly maximize the clean potential of the fuel. Green methanol is made from carbon dioxide or a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane. This production method effectively removes CO2 and methane from the atmosphere, creating a carbon cycle that achieves low, even negative, carbon intensity.

Looking ahead, the future looks promising for methanol within the aviation industry. One of our long-term goals at Element 1 is put a liquid methanol water mix onboard aircraft to generate hydrogen on demand. We can’t look to shoehorn our technology into every size and type of aircraft, but for certain hybrid electric aircraft, onboard hydrogen generation technology is a very sensible and logical possibility. Leveraging off advances being made in other transportation sectors, the aviation industry should continue to give methanol a prominent seat at the table when it comes to discussions around the role of hydrogen in decarbonizing air transport.