Methanol is a realistic alternative to the Hydrogen Economy. Its more toxic, but as a liquid, its easier to transport and store. Unlike hydrogen, it can be distributed via the same transport systems used for oil. Additional benefits are that:
A common feature of methanol, hydrogen and biofuels is that all three are just ways of storing and transporting energy. They are not primary energy sources because they all require large amounts of externally provided energy to pumped into them during manufacture.
This is the current industrial production method but it is only a viable methanol source while natural gas can be obtained from fossil sources.
This method was introduced in 1927 and used to produce methanol as a fuel until it was displaced by oil-based fuels. A pyrolytic reactor is operated as a gasifier by injecting air or pure oxygen into the reactor core. This burns the biomass to ash and releases gasses. After scrubbing, the resulting syngas which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide in an approximately 2:1 ratio, is reacted in the presence of catalysts at high pressure and temperature to form methanol. This method produces about 100 gallons of methanol per ton of feed material. This process is carbon neutral because the methanol is derived from biomass.
This process can be powered by nuclear or renewable energy. It should be non-polluting and carbon neutral because the only products are methanol and oxygen. At the time of writing (November, 2012) there is one proof of concept system running:
The sodium hydroxide appears to be recycled, though neither the waste products nor the process energy efficiency are mentioned. Their development timetable calls for plants capable of producing at least 10 tonnes of renewable fuel a day by 2015: the current (2012) demonstrator produces one litre of petrol per day.
The MTG process is proven technology which has been in use in New Zealand since 1985. Unlike the better known Fischer-Tropsch process, which needs significant energy input and, as a result, has overall energy efficiency in the 25-50% range, the MTG process is exothermic and 93% of the energy contained in the methanol is retained in the final product.
The critical factor for this fuel production path is its energy efficiency, but nobody is willing to discuss that. Yet.