Could Methanol Become an Important Fuel for Energy and Mobility?

Louis Brasington

With a global demand of more than 80 million metric tons and a growth rate of 5.4%, methanol is gaining acceptance. The market is projected to be worth $54 billion by 2021. Its uses vary greatly – from adhesives and PET bottles to fleece jackets, packaging, paints and solvents. A key application is the energy market. China alone, as the largest producer and consumer, accounts for 54% of world demand. Alongside oil, gas and hydrogen, methanol is an important fuel source for mobile and stationary applications.

We caught up with Siqens, a fuel cell company and one of our 2018 Ones to Watch, to find out if methanol could play a larger role in powering the future.

Cleantech Group: Can you summarize how the company started?

Siqens: The company started in the founder’s basement with a steam-supplied direct methanol fuel cell in 2008 and grew organically from there. The founder had the idea for a new and better type of fuel cell by combining the advantages of the high-temperature fuel cell and the direct methanol fuel cell. Prior to the company founding, the development team was located at the Munich University for Applied Sciences and gained access to R&D grants to improve the initial idea. This also provided the basis for a strong network within the fuel cell and academic R&D community, which is still present today.

Cleantech Group: Can you tall me a bit about the company’s growth since launch?

Siqens: The technological developments were quickly patented for Europe, Asia and the US. With this came more serious investments, as well as EU R&D funding. More cash allowed the company to hire more engineers and business developers. The growing team supplied the expertise and hard work to transition from a research to a product company with a clear market entry vision – providing clean, reliable off-grid power at a competitive price.

Cleantech Group: Can you tell me  how methanol is produced and transported?

Siqens: Methanol is produced by reforming gas with steam and then distilling the mixture to create pure methanol. Renewable sources are available for use, including municipal waste, biomass and recycled carbon dioxide.

As a liquid, methanol is handled using industrial container standards such as barrels, canisters and tanker trucks. Existing infrastructure can be used with minimal adaptations, which is an important factor for governments and industries looking to move away from oil.

Menthanol has four potential cycles
Siqens delivers the advantages of methanol.
Cleantech Group: How is Siqens using methanol fuel cells?

Siqens: Siqens has developed a novel high-temperature methanol fuel cell (HT-MFC), enabling increased efficiency, low-cost air cooling and lower fuel costs. Carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 70% compared to diesel generators. Methanol is a positive fuel choice because of its high energy density of 4.4 kWh per liter.

Fuel cells are best used in off-grid scenarios. Stationary (producing anything from 0.5 kW to more than 10 kWe) and portable fuel cells (producing between 0.5 and 5 kW) can power telecommunications base stations and other remote assets.

Overland power cables are one target market for stationary power. Transporting large amounts of electricity over long distances puts demand on the cables, especially in cold climates. The power load on the cables and the cables themselves need to be monitored by an electrical device, which must be guaranteed 24/7, in all seasons and any weather. Fuel cells can provide low maintenance, efficient and secure energy supply, ensuring the battery is constantly supplied. With a constant supply of methanol, the fuel cell can run for more than 3,000 hours (125 days) non-stop, providing 500 W output power.

The ecoport 800 delivers energy efficiency in a fuel cell.
The ECOPORT 800
Cleantech Group: What do you see as the most enduring practical application?

Siqens: With the ECOPORT 800, Siqens developed a technology for replacing diesel generators as the off-grid power source in the low kW range. It can provide the same reliable power free from noise, pollution and constant maintenance, potentially providing clean and safe power to the 1.3 billion people worldwide without access.

 Cleantech Group: Can methanol fuel cells compete in the mobility sector?

Siqens: Methanol has two roles to play in the sector. It is a primary fuel, and can be mixed with petroleum to be used in combustion-battery-hybrid vehicles, or methanol can be used as a hydrogen carrier for battery-fuel-cell-hybrid vehicles. Siqens sees an opportunity here, especially with regards to delivery and utility vehicles in urban and remote areas.

Installing a 42kg fuel cell, excluding the methanol canisters, provides power to re-charge the drive battery, cool the cabin in summer and heat it in winter. Any number of auxiliary units can be connected without losing drive power. Re-fueling methanol, either at a central depot, a fuel station or from canisters, is easy.

Cleantech Group: What are the next major steps for the team at Siqens?

Siqens: We have oriented our impact strategy and are working toward closing the off-grid energy gap with solar and wind by providing an easy and reliable hybrid solution. We also want to work with industrial system integrators. For example, wind park construction needs off-grid energy to power their beacon lights. We provide this energy. We are seeking to collaborate with companies building telecoms base stations in rural India and China, or electric utility vehicle enterprises wanting to increase their range by integrating a battery charger. But we also see people with remote holiday homes as well as infrastructure service companies with video surveillance along motorways, as potential customers. Combining methanol with fuel cells produces clean, silent off-grid power for virtually anybody.

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