Beyond oil and gas: the methanol economy

Beyond oil and gas: the methanol economy     

George A Olah, Alain Goeppert and G K Surya Prakash   

Weinheim, Germany, Wiley-VCH  2006 | 304pp | ?17.99 (HB) | ISBN 3527312757 

Reviewed by Peter Hall

The allegedly Chinese aphorism ’may you live in interesting times’ is certainly true for those of us in the energy sector that are blessed, or cursed, to do so. George Olah, Alain Goeppert and Surya Prakash have produced a book for our time, proposing an economy in which oil is replaced by methanol to provide chemicals and energy. 

The book presents the reader with an analysis of energy history, an analysis of the status quo and a description of the methanol thesis. It is a book that should appeal to science historians, chemists and chemical engineers alike.  

However, historians may find the historical analysis inaccurate (there is little historical evidence linking the mere existence of a technology to its widespread adoption), chemists the chemistry simplistic and chemical engineers the engineering undeveloped. Nevertheless, I recommend this to all three disciplines because there are precious few works that dare to link these fields. It will appeal to non-specialists who are interested in energy issues.  

Do the authors provide a convincing case for the methanol economy? There is a lack of scientific objectivity in their arguments and a number of important developments in, for example, hydrogen storage remain unanalysed. They also ignore the massive governmental commitment to the hydrogen economy in the US, EU and Asia and therefore present an, as yet, minority view. The weakest case in their argument is possibly that, as they acknowledge, ’methanol is an adequate fuel for fuel cells,’ but definitely not an ideal fuel. 

As the conference season approaches, and aeroplanes are filled with scientists contributing massively to the atmospheric burden of CO2, we could do a lot worse than to refuse a gin and tonic, read this book and contemplate the message of this flawed masterpiece.