Air Water Inc. (TYO:4088), Osaka University, Iwata Chizaki Inc. and the town of Okoppe, Hokkaido, are working to establish a world-first photochemical plant that uses biogas derived from livestock to produce methanol and formic acid in a commercially viable manner. The project members hope that the plant will see Japan produce more methanol domestically rather than relying on imports, and that the formic acid will be used as a hydrogen carrier.
The project here stems from research at Osaka University, which in 2018 developed a method of synthesizing methanol and formic acid by inducing an oxidation reaction. Specifically, the method dissolves chlorine dioxide and methane gas in a fluorous solvent and then exposes it to ultraviolet light. Research for this was carried out using biogas at an existing plant in Okoppe.
Air Water subsidiary Air Water Hokkaido Inc., which recently joined the project, has been tasked with designing the new photochemical plant. Meanwhile, Iwata Chizaki is overseeing technology for controlling the chemical reaction environment. When the plant begins commercial operations, it will be capable of producing 80 tons of methanol and 400 tons of formic acid per year – a goal that the project members hope to achieve within the next few years.
The idea with this project is to supply methanol as fuel for biogas plants, as well as send it out for exports. At present, Japan produces nearly none of the methanol it consumes; but with the help of this new process, the country could end up making so much that it could satisfy domestic demand while still having some left over for export. Another potential use for the methanol would be to supply methanol energy for new electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and fuel cells.
Meanwhile, the new plant’s formic acid output could fulfill all Japanese demand for the formic acid that is used as an additive in silage, which is given to livestock as feed. Estimates indicate that the technology would overall reduce Okoppe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26,000 tons and provide an economic benefit of 3.5 billion yen ($33.39 million).