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Products and solutions Jun 8, 2017 11:00 AM

New technology may make feasible the resumption of methanol production in Brazil

In August 2016, the last Brazilian methanol manufacturer suspended its production due to the decreased prices of this commodity in the international market and to the high cost of natural gas (which represents more than 80% of the cost to produce this compound). The boom of shale gas in North America made the production of methanol in this region highly competitive, gradually rendering the production in Brazil unfeasible. The result is that all methanol used in Brazil – nearly 1 million tons per year – is currently imported. From this total, approximately 500 million are applied in the production of biodiesel.

But how to reduce the dependence from imported methanol, considering that the production cost in Brazil is highly affected by the price and availability of natural gas – which is nearly four times higher than the one paid by petrochemical companies in other countries? An alternative to make possible the resumption of the local production of methanol is a new production route that not only detaches the methanol from the natural gas chain, but also allows producing the input in smaller scale, close or integrated to consumer industries.

One of the main global suppliers of full process plants, thyssenkrupp, through its Industrial Solutions business area, has developed an exclusive methanol production route, based on electrolytic cells. The inputs are water, electric power and carbon dioxide. The electrolysis process “breaks” the water molecule, generating hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is then combined with carbon dioxide to generate methanol. Oxygen, in this case a “byproduct”, is highly pure and also has considerable market value.

“These methanol plants can be built, for example, near co-generation units, since electric power is an essential input for the process. We believe that the biodiesel and the pulp and paper industries in special can integrate this new technology into their plants, because they require methanol on their processes and have access to electric power coming from co-generation,” explains Paulo Alvarenga, CEO of thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions for South America.

He also highlights the break of paradigm in the production scale, since plants of methanol from natural gas are only feasible for large capacities. In this new process by thyssenkrupp, plants starting at 10 tons of methanol a day are feasible, which enables to integrated them to regional consumption units or centers. With this, the logistics cost to deliver methanol in the Midwest region, for example, virtually disappears.

“In addition to being one of the biggest biodiesel producer worldwide, Brazil is also the second biggest pulp producer in the world, losing only to China. The production of pulp also uses methanol to make chlorine dioxide, a cellulose bleaching agent. In other words, implementing a methanol production unit integrated to a cellulose plant is an interesting opportunity, also considering the availability of power co-generation on cellulose plants,” highlights Luiz Antonio Mello, Business Development manager of thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions for Brazil.

Used as solvent, fuel and reagent in different chemical processes, methanol has had its demand pulled more significantly by the increase in the mix of biodiesel to conventional diesel sold to consumers. This March, the federal resolution that increased the percentage of this mixture to 8% (the so-called B8) came into force, which represents an increase of 14% in the demand for biodiesel, equivalent to 4.2 billion liters a year. Also according to the resolution, the composition may increase to 9% (B9) in 2018 and 10% (B10) in the following year. Considering the high percentage of renewable sources (water, biomass, wind) in the Brazilian electric power matrix, exchanging the “natural gas-based” methanol for the “water/electricity-based” methanol contributes to reducing the carbon footprint in Brazilian diesel.