Free methanol

Researchers working in OxfordUniversity’s Department of Chemistry have discovered a new way to produce methanol from glycerol.

Currently, 90 per cent of methanol is produced from natural gas, but the new process offers an alternative that does not rely on fossil fuels.

‘We’re turning a waste material, glycerol, directly into a very useful product, methanol. Essentially, this is a way of getting methanol for free from biomass,’ said Prof Edman Tsang, the main inventor of the process.

The advantage of this process is that it does not require multiple costly processing steps, and it works at a low temperature and low pressure. The process operates under achievable mild conditions of 100oC and 20 bar of pressure.

Glycerol is the major by-product of biodiesel and oleochemical (chemicals derived from biological oils or fats) production. For every 9kg of vegetable oil processed, 1kg of glycerol is produced.

Although glycerol is used in foods and personal care products, there is no large-scale industrial demand for the chemical, and until now there has been no viable commercial process to directly convert it to methanol.

Isis Innovation, the technology transfer arm of the university, has patented the technology and will work with Prof Tsang to commercialise it.