Chemical Recycling of Carbon Dioxide to Methanol and Dimethyl
Ether: From Greenhouse Gas to Renewable, Environmentally
Carbon Neutral Fuels and Synthetic Hydrocarbons
George A. Olah,* Alain Goeppert, and G. K. Surya Prakash
Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute and Department of Chemistry, UniVersity of Southern California,
UniVersity Park, Los Angeles, California 90089-1661
ReceiVed June 11, 2008
Nature’s photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy with chlorophyll in plants as a catalyst to recycle carbon
dioxide and water into new plant life. Only given sufficient geological time can new fossil fuels be
formed naturally. In contrast, chemical recycling of carbon dioxide from natural and industrial sources
as well as varied human activities or even from the air itself to methanol or dimethyl ether (DME) and
their varied products can be achieved via its capture and subsequent reductive hydrogenative conversion.
The present Perspective reviews this new approach and our research in the field over the last 15 years.
Carbon recycling represents a significant aspect of our proposed Methanol Economy. Any available energy
source (alternative energies such as solar, wind, geothermal, and atomic energy) can be used for the
production of needed hydrogen and chemical conversion of CO2. Improved new methods for the efficient
reductive conversion of CO2to methanol and/or DME that we have developed include bireforming with
methane and ways of catalytic or electrochemical conversions. Liquid methanol is preferable to highly
volatile and potentially explosive hydrogen for energy storage and transportation. Together with the derived
DME, they are excellent transportation fuels for internal combustion engines (ICE) and fuel cells as well
as convenient starting materials for synthetic hydrocarbons and their varied products. Carbon dioxide
thus can be chemically transformed from a detrimental greenhouse gas causing global warming into a
valuable, renewable and inexhaustible carbon source of the future allowing environmentally neutral use
of carbon fuels and derived hydrocarbon products.
A perspective article on the chemical recycling of carbon
dioxide may not be a usual topic for the Journal of Organic
Chemistry. It may be even questioned whether CO2recycling
would qualify as a topic for an organic chemistry journal.
However, CO2 is an ubiquitous carbon source allowing the
production of methanol and dimethyl ether, efficient alternative
transportation fuels, as well as their varied derived products.
The topic thus clearly falls into the scope of organic chemistry.
Copyright 2009 by the American Chemical Society
VOLUME 74, NUMBER 2January 16, 2009
10.1021/jo801260f CCC: $40.75 2009 American Chemical Society
Published on Web 12/08/2008
J. Org. Chem. 2009, 74, 487–498
Further, one of the major challenges of our time is to find
efficient new solutions beyond our diminishing fossil fuels
resources (oil, natural gas, coal) and the grave environmental
consequences of excessive combustion of carbon-containing
fuels and their products. The concept of the “Methanol
Economy” that we have developed hinges on the chemical
recycling of CO2to useful fuels. (i.e., methanol and DME) and
other products.1,2At the same time, it renders carbon-containing
fuels renewable (on the human time scale) and environmentally
neutral. This not only allows us to mitigate a major human made
cause of global warming but also provides us with an inexhaust-
ible and generally available carbon source for ages to come.
Introduction and Concept
Starting with coal and subsequently petroleum oil and natural
gas, fossil fuels allowed an unprecedented era of prosperity and
advancement for human development in the past two centuries.
The world still relies heavily today on fossil fuels to cover about
80% of its energy needs and to produce the vast multitude of
derived fuels and essential products. The amounts of fossil fuels
available to us are, however, finite and are rapidly depleting.
Once consumed, they are not renewed on the human time scale.
One of us (G.A.O.) has proposed some time ago the use of
methanol as an alternative way to store, transport, and use energy
(the so-called “Methanol Economy”).1,3-6Methanol and derived
dimethyl ether (DME) are also excellent fuels in internal
combustion engines (ICE) and in a new generation of direct
oxidation methanol fuel cells (DMFC), as well as convenient
starting materials for producing light olefins (ethylene and
propylene) and subsequently practically any derived hydrocar-
bon product. The “Methanol Economy”, detailed in our recent
monograph,2is capable of providing an environmentally carbon
neutral, or in some cases even carbon negative, alternative to
our diminishing oil and natural gas sources.1-3,5Methanol, as
discussed subsequently, can be efficiently produced from a wide
variety of sources including still available fossil fuels (coal, oil
shale, tar sands, etc.) by improved methods, but also from
agricultural products, municipal and industrial waste, wood, and
varied biomass. More importantly, as discussed in the present
perspective, methanol can also be produced in a new way from
chemical recycling of carbon dioxide. Initially, this will be
achieved from higher concentrations of CO2-rich flue gases of
fossil fuel burning power plants or exhausts of cement,
fermentation, and other industrial plants, aluminum and iron
ore smelters, etc. but also from major natural sources of CO2
such as those accompanying natural gas or geothermal hot water
and steam. In the future, however, even the low concentration
of CO2from our air, presently around 380 ppm, can be captured
and recycled to methanol, thus mimicking nature’s own
photosynthetic CO2cycle. Efficient new absorbents to capture
atmospheric CO2are being developed. Chemical recycling of
CO2 to new fuels and materials is thus becoming possible,
making them renewable on the human time scale. In contrast,
nature’s transformation of new plant life formed via photosyn-
thesis into fossil fuels may take many millions of years7for
which humankind cannot wait. Agricultural and natural product
based biofuels are increasingly produced and used. This requires,
however, at least in part shifting valuable food resources to fuel
production and has already resulted in sharply increasing food
prices8and increased pollution.9,10
Fossil fuels, as any carbon-containing materials, upon their
combustion release carbon dioxide and water. The presently used
conversion of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) to liquid hydro-
carbons and their products primarily by syngas-based chemistry
(vide infra) itself generates large amounts of CO2and byprod-
ucts. CO2is a major greenhouse gas significantly contributing
to global warming.11Mitigating its harmful effects is a well
recognized major challenge for humankind. The Kyoto agree-
ment and subsequent international efforts were directed to limit
CO2 emission into the atmosphere. Whereas econo-political
approaches such as carbon quotas and trading were suggested
and are increasingly put into effect in many countries, no new
major technological solution has emerged. Our suggested
Methanol Economy with the chemical recycling of carbon
dioxide to methanol and/or dimethyl ether and subsequently to
synthetic hydrocarbons and products offers such a new way to
render fuels renewable and environmentally carbon neutral or
even negative. It also offers humankind an inexhaustible carbon
source in the form of recyclable CO2, while at the same time
mitigating human-caused climate change (i.e., global warming).
Hydrogen needed for the chemical recycling of carbon dioxide
can come from water (by electrolysis or other cleavage) or from
still-existing significant hydrocarbon sources. Presently, avail-
able methane, primarily natural gas, but also other natural
sources such as coalbed methane, methane hydrate, and methane
from agricultural, domestic, and industrial sources can be
effectively utilized to produce methanol using improved ways,
including our new bireforming process (vide infra). We review
here efficient new ways to achieve the chemical recycling of
carbon dioxide including its capture, conversion to methanol
and/or dimethyl ether combining chemical and hydrogenative
reduction, or initial electrochemical reduction of CO2to CO.
Of course, all ways to recycle carbon dioxide to methanol
necessitate the use of significant energy. It should be emphasized
that we are not dealing with energy generation but only its
storage and use in a suitable form (i.e., methanol and/or dimethyl
ether). At the same time, our carbon recycling chemistry and
the Methanol Economy concept can utilize any form of energy;
still existing fossil fuels and alternative sources such as solar,
wind, hydro, geothermal, as well as atomic energy. They thus
offer extensive versatility and practical applications. As es-
sentially most of our energy in one form or another comes from
the sun, humankind will not experience a real energy shortage.
We only need to find suitable new ways to capture, store,
transport, and utilize energy.
Methanol was first produced as a minor byproduct of
producing charcoal by destructive distillation of wood and was
therefore called wood alcohol. Methanol produced this way was
used in the 19th century for lighting, cooking, and heating
purposes but was later replaced by cheaper fuels, especially
kerosene. Up to the 1920s, wood was the only source for
methanol, which was also needed in increasing quantities in
the developing chemical industry. Beginning in the 1920s, the
production of methanol from syngas, a mixture of CO and H2,
on an industrial scale was introduced by BASF in Germany.
Whereas coal was initially used as a feedstock for the syngas,
natural gas became the preferred feedstock after World War II.
It offered a higher hydrogen content and lower energy con-
sumption and contained fewer harmful impurities such as sulfur,
nitrogen, halogenated compounds, and heavy metals.12-16
Today, methanol is a primary raw material for the chemical
industry. It is manufactured in large quantities (about 40 million
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
tonnes in 2007) as an intermediate for the production of a variety
of chemicals including formaldehyde, methyl tert-butyl ether,
and acetic acid.12,16Most of these chemicals are subsequently
used to manufacture many products of our daily life including
paints, resins, adhesives, antifreezes, and plastics. Besides being
produced industrially and occurring naturally on earth to a small
extent in fruits, grapes, etc., methanol has also been found
recently in outer space.17Astronomers have observed an
enormous cloud of methanol around a nascent star in deep space
that measures ∼460 billion km across !
The toxicity of methanol is frequently quoted as a hindrance
for its use. Methanol is highly toxic only when ingested in larger
amounts (30-100 mL),18,19causing blindness and eventually
death. Of course, methanol, unlike ethanol, is not for internal
consumption, but neither are gasoline and diesel fuel. However,
according to the US FDA, daily intake of up to 500 mg/day of
methanol is safe for adults. Methanol has long been used in
consumer products as windshield washer fluids, deicing fluids,
antifreezes, and fuels for camping and outdoor activities.
Therefore, the use and dispensing of methanol as a general
purpose fuel is not expected to cause any significant safety
Methanol has excellent combustion characteristics making it
a suitable and proven fuel for internal combustion engine (ICE)
driven vehicles. It contains only about half the energy density
of gasoline but has a higher octane rating of 100 (average of
the research octane number (RON) of 107 and motor octane
number (MON) of 92).20Due to its high octane rating and
because it is also inherently safer than gasoline (fire safety),
methanol has been used in race cars since the 1960s.21Gasoline-
powered cars can be modified to run on methanol at a very
modest cost. Flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) running on mixtures
of methanol with gasoline, such as M15 or M85, containing
15% and 85% methanol, respectively, were used extensively
commercially in the 1980s, for example, in California.12In
Brazil, close to 80% of the cars produced are now FFVs able
to run on any mixture of ethanol and gasoline; sugar cane based
ethanol being available in Brazil at a low cost.22The wide
commercial use of methanol in ICE vehicles would therefore
not represent any difficulty.
Methanol, although it has been used in diesel engines, is not
the best fuel to replace diesel fuel because of its low cetane
number. The cetane number measures the propensity of a fuel
to self-ignite under high heat and pressure conditions. A high
cetane number is needed for efficient diesel engine operation.
Dimethyl ether (DME) having a cetane number of 55-60,
substantially higher than the 40-55 of conventional diesel fuel,
is thus far superior to methanol as a substitute diesel engine
fuel.23DME is presently produced by the bimolecular dehydra-
tion of methanol.
DME, the simplest of all ethers, is a colorless, nontoxic,
noncorrosive, noncarcinogenic, and environmentally friendly
chemical compound.24Unlike other homologous ethers, DME
does not form explosive peroxides,25allowing its safe storage
and handling. DME has a boiling point of -24.9 °C, being a
gas under ambient conditions. However, DME is generally
handled as a liquid and stored in pressurized tanks, much like
liquefied petroleum gas.26
Consumption of DME is rapidly growing particularly in Asia
as increasingly large quantities are used as a diesel fuel
substitute. DME is also a convenient substitute fuel used for
electric power generation as well as domestic heating and
Methanol (or its flex-fuel mixtures with gasoline) and DME
can also be used in new hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles,
combining an ICE with electric motors. Besides its utilization
in ICEs, methanol is an excellent fuel for efficient direct
methanol fuel cells (DMFC), which we jointly developed with
Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the early 1990s.27-29
Direct DME based fuel cells are also being studied.30,31
Methanol and DME, besides their use as transportation fuels,
are proven and increasingly utilized starting materials for
producing ethylene and propylene in the so-called methanol to
olefin (MTO) process.32,33
Acidic zeolitic solid catalysts such as SAPO-34 and ZSM-5
are most commonly used for this reaction. Olah et al. also
reported in the 1980s the use of a nonzeolitic bifunctional WO3/
Al2O3catalyst.34,35Ethylene and propylene can be subsequently
transformed to polyethylene and polypropylene or to varied
hydrocarbons and their products. Methanol is also the starting
material in the methanol to gasoline (MTG) process for the direct
production of gasoline, diesel fuel, and aromatics.36All products
presently obtained from petroleum oil or natural gas can
therefore be produced from methanol.
Current Manufacture of Methanol and DME from
Fossil Fuel Based Syngas. Methanol and DME are presently
exclusively produced from fossil fuel based syngas. The
processes, which are well optimized, produce currently, as
mentioned, about 40 million tonnes of methanol annually.
Syngas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide as well
as carbon dioxide formed from partial combustion or reforming
of coal or natural gas over a heterogeneous catalyst.
Syngas is produced from coal by gasification, a process
combining partial oxidation and steam treatment:
Due to the low H/C ratio of coal, the obtained syngas is rich
in carbon oxides (CO and CO2) and deficient in hydrogen.
Before being sent to the methanol production unit, the syngas
must thus be subjected to the water gas shift reaction to enhance
its hydrogen content. Alternatively, H2from other sources can
In coal-rich countries,37particularly China and South Africa,
coal-based syngas remains the major source for methanol.
However, syngas production, especially from coal, always
generates large amounts of carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which
causes environmental problems.
Since World War II, the major source for syngas production
became increasingly natural gas, which is more convenient,
economic, and environmentally friendly to use.15The most
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
widely employed technology to produce syngas from natural
gas is presently steam reforming (eq 1). Its combination with
partial oxidation (eq 2) is also increasingly used in a process
called autothermal reforming. Dry reforming (eq 3) has also
been used, although to a lesser extent.38
After adjusting the CO/H2ratio close to 1:2, the syngas is
converted to methanol. Present processes to produce methanol
from syngas use copper/zinc oxide based catalysts, which are
extremely active and selective in heterogeneous gas-phase
processes. Methanol synthesis is an exothermic reaction (-21.7
kcal mol–1), and control of the process temperature is important
to avoid rapid deactivation of the catalyst.39
The production of DME from methanol is readily carried out
over varied mildly acidic catalysts such as alumina.26
Chemical Conversion of CO2to Methanol and/or Dimeth-
yl Ether. The syngas-based production of methanol and
subsequently DME inevitably generates large amounts of carbon
dioxide. Of course, methanol and all carbon-containing fuels
upon their combustion form carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, a
significant greenhouse gas, is considered a harmful pollutant
of our atmosphere and a major source for human-caused global
warming. So far, however, besides the proposed collection and
sequestration of excess CO2, a costly and only temporary
solution, which in seismically active areas could cause devastat-
ing releases of CO2 in case of earthquakes or other earth
movements, no new technology emerged for its disposal. In
recent years, we suggested and carried out extensive work on
the effective chemical conversion of carbon dioxide, thus
allowing its recycling and reuse to essential fuels and
materials.40-43This practical feasible approach, we believe,
offers a solution to the environmental problem of carbon dioxide
increase in our atmosphere and associated global warming, but
also renders our fuels renewable and environmentally carbon
Catalytic Hydrogenative Conversion of Carbon Dioxide
to Methanol. The most direct and studied route to methanol
from CO2is the catalytic regenerative conversion of CO2with
hydrogen according to
This reaction has been known to chemists for more than 80
years. In fact, some of the earliest methanol plants operating in
the U.S. in the 1920-1930s commonly used carbon dioxide
for methanol production, generally obtained as byproduct of
other processes such as fermentation.12More recently, efficient
catalysts based on metals and their oxides, in particular the
combination of copper and zinc oxide, have been developed
for this conversion. Lurgi AG, a leader in the methanol synthesis
process, for example, developed and thoroughly tested a high
activity catalyst for methanol production from CO2and H2.44
Operating at a temperature around 260 °C, slightly higher than
conventional methanol synthesis catalyst, the selectivity to
methanol is excellent. The activity of this catalyst decreased at
about the same rate as the activity of commercial catalyst used
in usual methanol synthesis plants. The synthesis of methanol
from CO2and H2has also been demonstrated on a pilot scale
in Japan, where a 50 kg CH3OH /day production with a
selectivity to methanol of 99.8% was achieved.45A liquid-phase
methanol synthesis process was also developed, which allows
a CO2and H2conversion to methanol of about 95% with very
high selectivity in a single pass.46In our own work we have
developed improved catalysts.
The first contemporary commercial CO2to methanol recycling
plant using locally available cheap geothermal energy is
presently being built after successful pilot plant scale operation
in Iceland by the company Carbon Recycling International. The
plant is based on the conversion of CO2, a significant byproduct
accompanying local geothermal energy sources or industrial
sources (aluminum production). H2 is produced by water
electrolysis (vide infra).47In Japan, Mitsui chemicals is building
a pilot plant producing methanol from CO2and H2with an
annual capacity of 100 tonnes. Hydrogen will be generated by
photochemical splitting of water using solar energy.48There is
also significant interest in CO2to methanol processes in China,
Australia, the European Union, and other countries for recycling
CO2from industrial sources such as coal burning power plants,
aluminum, and cement production, etc. So far, however, there
is only limited interest in the US.
The general composition of the catalysts for CO2hydrogena-
tion such as Cu/ZnO/Al2O3is similar to the ones used presently
for methanol production via syngas.49-52In view of our present
understanding of the mechanism of the syngas based chemistry,
this is not unexpected. Although still debated, it is now usually
accepted that methanol is formed almost exclusively by
hydrogenation of CO2contained in the syngas on the catalyst’s
surface. To be converted to methanol, some of the CO in syngas
needs first to undergo a water gas shift reaction to give additional
H2and form CO2. The formed CO2then reacts with hydrogen
to produce methanol.39,53,54In fact, it has been shown that
reacting on a commercial methanol catalyst a CO/H2mixture
carefully purified from CO2and water produces no or very little
Varied process studies to produce methanol from CO2and
H2were also reported.44,49,50,55The capital investment for a
methanol plant using CO2and H2is estimated to be about the
same as that of a conventional syngas based plant.44The key
factor for the large scale use of such a process is the availability
of the raw materials: CO2and H2. Worldwide, presently more
than 25 billion tonnes of CO2related to human activities are
released into the atmosphere every year. Large amounts of CO2
can thus be obtained relatively easily from various exhaust
sources such as from fossil fuel burning power plants and varied
industrial plants from cement factories to aluminum production
to fermentation plants. Also, large natural CO2sources, such
as CO2 accompanying natural gas and geothermal energy
producing wells, could be captured and stored or recycled to
avoid atmospheric release. Even the small concentration of CO2
contained in the air can be separated and chemically recycled
to methanol and varied synthetic hydrocarbons and their
products (vide infra). We will discuss the present status and
challenges of capture and purification of CO2from industrial
and natural sources, as well as production of hydrogen for
chemical carbon recycling.
CO2Capture and Purification for Recycling. From In-
dustrial and Natural Sources. Nature captures and recycles
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
atmospheric CO2 efficiently in its photosynthetic cycle. To
chemically recycle CO2to methanol, it is necessary to be able
to capture it from industrial or natural sources conveniently and
economically in a pure form. This is currently best achieved
by capturing and recycling CO2from sources where it is present
in a sufficiently high concentration, through physical-chemical
absorption and desorption cycles coupled when needed with
chemical purification particularly from H2S, SO2, and other
Globally, CO2emissions from electricity generation, cement
and fermentation plants, industries, the transportation sector,
heating (cooling), cooking, and other activities all contribute
to the increase in CO2levels in the atmosphere, from 270 ppm
at the beginning of the industrial era to about 380 ppm today.
They are predicted to double by the end of the century. There
is a well-established correlation, initially proposed by Arrhenius
in the late 19th century, between atmospheric CO2content and
global temperature.56Natural warming cycles by themselves
may increase CO2concentrations. Thus, human activity caused
CORegardless,2production is superimposed on that arising from
natural processes.57it is obvious that humankind’s excessive
burning of fossil fuels since the dawn of the industrial revolution
is producing large amounts of excess carbon dioxide contributing
to the increase in global temperatures. The use of fossil fuels
and other human activities are therefore considered environ-
mentally harmful as they inevitably form excessive carbon
dioxide, upsetting nature’s recycling ability. Although our fossil
fuel reserves are limited, they will for the foreseeable immediate
future continue to provide the dominant share of humanity’s
energy needs. We should, however, do everything in our power
to mitigate damage caused by human activities, even more so
as we do not have control over nature’s long-range cycles
(change in the earth’s axes to the sun, solar flairs, etc.). The
Kyoto agreement, although not yet approved by all countries,
is an effort to limit CO2emissions based primarily on quotas
and carbon trading.58To reduce CO2emissions however, new
technologies must be developed and enforced. More energy
efficient technologies and conservation can help but will not
be sufficient to stop the global increase of CO2emissions. To
significantly reduce emissions, recovery of CO2from industrial
and natural sources is clearly becoming necessary.
Capture of carbon dioxide, although not generally employed
on a large scale, is a well studied process. The separation of
CO2from gas streams can be achieved by diverse separation
techniques. They are based on different physical and chemical
processes including absorption into a liquid solution, adsorption
onto suitable solids, cryogenic separation, and permeation
through membranes.59Amine solution based CO2absorption/
desorption systems using monoethanolamine (MEA) and di-
ethanolamine (DEA) are some of the most widely employed
for the separation of CO2from gas mixtures.59High energy
requirements for the regeneration step and limited loadings in
amines due to corrosion problems and amine degradation are,
however, major drawbacks warranting the development of more
efficient renewable CO2sorbents.
In our work, we have developed a new, highly effective CO2
absorption-desorption system consisting of polyethylenimine
(or related polymeric amino systems) supported on nanostruc-
tured silica.60Recently, metal-organic frameworks (MOF) with
high CO2storage capacity have also been discovered. MOF are
a class of highly porous materials with high surface area. MOF
177 composed of zinc clusters joined by 3,5-benzenetribenzoate
units, for example, has a surface area of 4500 m2/g and a CO2
storage capacity of about 1.47 g CO2per g of MOF at a pressure
of 30 bar.61,62Scale-up of these technologies as well as further
improvements are necessary to reduce the cost of CO2capture,
which presently is limited to more highly concentrated industrial
or natural sources.
Capturing of CO2 from industrial and natural sources for
recycling to methanol and its derived products also necessitates
its purification from frequently present accompanying pollutants
(especially H2S and SOx). This is particularly significant in
developing “clean coal” technologies. These pollutants, besides
their environmental effect, also frequently tend to poison the
catalyst systems used in the chemical recycling processes
discussed. Their removal is therefore also needed to allow
technical carbon dioxide recycling. Methods for the removal
of these contaminants are described in detail in the literature.59
“Clean coal”, however, should also mean CO2 disposal by
sequestration or more advantageously by our suggested chemical
recycling, as burning coal or any other fossil fuel inevitably
forms carbon dioxide.
It is also important to realize that more than half of human-
caused CO2emissions are the result of small dispersed sources
such as office and home heating, cooking, and most importantly
the transportation sector. The collection at the source of CO2
from millions, even billions, of small fossil fuel burning units
will be difficult if at all possible. These dispersed CO2emissions
represent a preponderant part of the global CO2emissions, and
their importance cannot be ignored in the long run. However,
recycling of CO2from high concentration industrial sources as
well as natural CO2accompanying such large-scale operation
as natural gas production, geothermal energy utilization, etc. is
already feasible and should be vigorously pursued. It can
significantly mitigate our overall CO2emissions before excess
atmospheric CO2chemical recycling will be realized.
From the Atmosphere. To deal with small and dispersed
CO2emitters and avoid the need of developing and constructing
a huge CO2 collecting infrastructure, CO2 will have to be
captured from the atmosphere to supplement nature’s own
photosynthetic recycling. Such an approach has already been
proposed by some in the past.63-67The atmosphere could thus
serve as a source of CO2for chemical recycling. The concentra-
tion of CO2in air being at equilibrium all around the world,
CO2 capturing facilities can be put in any place. To allow
subsequent methanol synthesis they could be ideally placed close
to hydrogen production sites.
Despite the low concentration of carbon dioxide of only
0.038% in air, nature recycles efficiently CO2by photosynthesis
in plants, trees, algaes, etc. to produce carbohydrates, cellulose,
lipids, etc. and eventually new plant life, while releasing oxygen,
thus sustaining life on Earth. Following nature’s example,
humankind, we believe, will be able to capture excess CO2from
air and recycle it to generate hydrocarbons and their products.
CO2can be even presently captured from the atmosphere using
basic absorbents such as calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2) or
potassium hydroxide (KOH), which react with CO2to form
calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and potassium carbonate (K2CO3),
respectively.68After capture, CO2is recovered from the sorbent
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
by desorption, through heating, applying vacuum, or electro-
chemically. Calcium carbonate, for example, as well-known in
the cement industry can be thermally calcinated to release carbon
dioxide. CO2 absorption is an exothermic reaction, which
liberates heat, and is readily achieved by simply contacting CO2
with an adequate base. The energy-demanding step is the
endothermic desorption, requiring energy to regenerate the base
and recover CO2. Calcium carbonate or sodium carbonate,
requiring high energy input for recovery are therefore not well
suited candidates for CO2capture from air. Research, which is
still in its relatively early phase of development, is under way
to find suitable absorbents and technologies to remove CO2from
air for its recycling with the lowest possible energy input. For
example, using KOH as an absorbent, it has been shown that
the electrolysis of K2CO3in water could efficiently produce not
only CO2but also H2with relatively modest energy input.69,70
With further developments and improvements, CO2capture from
the atmosphere, which has already been described as technically
feasible, will become economically more viable.68In submarines
and space flights, the removal of CO2, essential to keep the air
breathable, is already carried out using regenerable polymeric
or liquid amine scrubbers. In our own work, a nanostructured
silica-supported polyethylenimine absorbent was found to be
able to absorb CO2from the air, although further work is needed
to increase the efficiency of CO2capture.60
Among the various advantages of CO2extraction from air is
the fact that CO2capture, being independent from CO2sources,
would allow more CO2capture than is actually emitted from
human activities. This means that this technology could allow
us to not only stabilize CO2levels, making us carbon neutral,
but eventually even lower them, making our carbon emission
It should be pointed out that our air also contains other
building blocks essential for our sustainable future in consider-
ably higher concentration than the low (0.038%) CO2content:
(a) pure water in the form of moisture, essential to life and an
inexhaustible source of hydrogen; (b) nitrogen, for the synthesis
of ammonia and derived synthetic nitrogen containing com-
pounds especially fertilizers; (c) oxygen, also essential to life
as well as for combustion processes. Utilizing all these
atmospheric resources can ensure a sustainable future for most
of our needs using air as a most significant source material.
Hydrogen Production. The essential second component for
the chemical recycling of carbon dioxide is hydrogen. The
needed hydrogen for CO2conversion to methanol is not present
on earth in its free form, because of its high affinity for oxygen
of our atmosphere. However, it is abundant bound to oxygen
in water or to carbon in fossil fuels and varied hydrocarbons
sources. It is also an essential part of varied natural sources
such as plant life, cellulosic materials (wood), carbohydrates,
Hydrogen for the chemical conversion of CO2to methanol
needs to be generated either by using still-existing significant
sources of fossil fuels (mainly natural gas) or from splitting of
water. The energy required for the latter (electrochemical,
thermal, photolytic, etc) can come from any energy source,
preferably renewable such as solar, from nuclear energy, or from
enzymatic biological processes.
The electrolysis of water to produce H2and O2is a well-
Electrolysis is energy intensive. The power consumption at
100% theoretical efficiency is 39.4 kWh/kg of hydrogen;
however, in practice it is closer to 50-65 kWh/kg.71
The conversion efficiency of water to hydrogen, depending
on the system, can be between 80 and 95%. Considering the
power needed for a complete electrolyzer system, the best energy
efficiency is today around 73%.72This means that about 53 kWh
of electricity is needed to produce 1 kg of hydrogen. Current
R&D efforts are aimed at improving net system efficiencies of
commercial electrolysis toward 85%.73In water electrolyzers
of 1000 kg of H2 per day, the cost of electricity has been
estimated to represent about 80% of the cost of hydrogen
produced, while capital investment represented only 11%.72In
large electrolysis units, the cost of electricity would therefore
dictate the overall economics and will be the major driving factor
for producing hydrogen.
The electricity needed for the process can be provided by
any form of energy. Presently, a large part of the electricity
produced is still derived from fossil fuel burning power plants.74
In the future, however, in order to be sustainable and environ-
mentally adaptable, the electricity needed for electrolysis of
water on a large scale will come from atomic energy (nuclear
fission and eventually nuclear fusion) and any renewable energy
source, preferentially solar but also hydro, geothermal, wind,
wave, tides, etc. As mentioned, the pioneering commercial CO2
to methanol recycling plant under development in Iceland uses
available cheap geothermal electricity, making it commercially
feasible without any subsidies or carbon credits.47Besides
electrolysis, production of hydrogen through enzymatic, photo-
and thermal water splitting cycles, as well as using chemical
cycles such as the iodine-sulfur cycle operating at 800-1000
°C are also being developed and could be utilized in the future.75
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
Despite considerable advances in more efficient hydrogen
generation from water by electrolysis, fossil fuels, especially
natural gas and in some countries coal or even oil, still remain
presently economical sources for the production of hydrogen
via their reforming. However, their inevitable depletion and
pressure from ever increasing prices and environmental concerns
put a growing emphasis on the use of water to generate
hydrogen, which eventually will be its sole inexhaustible
renewable source utilizing any form of energy, preferably solar.
Improved Methanol Production from Natural Gas and
Coal. To avoid excessive CO2emissions into the atmosphere,
processes to produce methanol and its derivatives based on fossil
fuels but generating less or even no CO2should be increasingly
introduced. This progressive shift to a more “carbon neutral”
economy will also ease the transition to alternative energy
sources. Such approaches were pursued in our work over the
past decade and are discussed subsequently.
As long as fossil fuels are still widely available, improved
routes to produce hydrogen from them without releasing excess
CO2are needed. For this purpose, the so-called “Carnol process”
was developed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. In this
process, hydrogen is produced by thermal decomposition of
methane with carbon formed as a byproduct.76,77The generated
hydrogen is then reacted with CO2recovered from emission of
fossil fuel burning power plants and other industrial flue gases
to produce methanol. Overall, the net emission of CO2from
this process is close to zero, because CO2 released by the
methanol used as a fuel is recycled from existing emission
sources. The solid carbon formed as a byproduct can be handled
and stored much more easily than the gaseous CO2, and be
disposed of or used as a commodity material in some applica-
The thermal decomposition of methane occurs when methane
is heated to high temperatures in the absence of air. To obtain
reasonable conversion rates under industrial conditions, tem-
peratures above 800 °C are required.76This process has been
long used not for the production of hydrogen but for carbon
black in the tire industry and as a pigment for inks and paints.
For the primary generation of hydrogen, different reactor designs
have been proposed. Attention has recently been focused on
reactors operating with a molten metal bath, such as molten tin
heated to about 900 °C, into which methane gas is introduced.
The Carnol process is carbon neutral in the sense that all the
carbon present in methane ends up as solid carbon. It should
be clear, however, that, whereas methane steam reforming
produces 3 mol of hydrogen for every mole of methane used,
methane decomposition yields only 2 mol. On the other hand,
methane’s thermal decomposition byproduct, i.e., solid carbon,
has no effect on the atmosphere and can be easily handled,
stored, and used without much further treatment. The price to
pay for this is a lower amount of H2generated from methane
and therefore a higher cost.
Another way to produce methanol from CO2by sequestering
some of the CO2in the form of carbon is the combination of
CH4 decomposition and dry reforming. The result is the
production of methanol and carbon. For 2 mol of CH4used, 1
mol of solid carbon is formed. The formed carbon can be
sequestered or used in reducing CO2 to CO, which can be
hydrogenated to methanol (vide infra).
The environmental benefit is not as high as with the Carnol
process, but the economic cost may be lower.
A further way to utilize more efficiently still available natural
gas resources and at the same time convert CO2to methanol is
to react CO2with natural gas or other hydrocarbon sources to
produce syngas. In a process called “dry reforming”, which does
not involve steam, CO2is reacted with natural gas to produce
syngas of H2/CO (1:1) composition. With a reaction enthalpy
of ∆H ) 59 kcal.mol-1, this reaction is more endothermic than
This reaction is carried out commercially at temperatures
around 800-1000 °C using catalysts based on nickel (Ni/MgO,
Ni/MgAl2O4, etc).78-80The syngas obtained has a H2/CO ratio
of about 1, much lower than the values around 3 obtained with
steam reforming. The high CO and low hydrogen contents
makes it a suitable feed gas for some processes, especially iron
ore reduction and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis of long-chain
alkanes. This syngas composition is, however, not suitable for
the production of methanol using existing technology in which
a H2/CO ratio close to 2:1 is needed.
Hydrogen generated from other sources would thus have to
be added to the 1:1 H2/CO syngas produced by dry reforming
to obtain a proper 2:1 H2/CO ratio.
To overcome this disadvantage and to produce a H2/CO
mixture with a ratio close to 2 (what we call “metgas”) suited
for methanol synthesis, we developed a new advantageous way
to use a specific combination of steam and dry reforming of
methane or natural gas, in what we call “bireforming”. It
involves a 3:2:1 ratio of CH4/H2O/CO2. The catalysts for
bireforming can be those used for separate dry and steam
reforming, combining thereafter the two streams. We have also
developed a system combining dry and steam reforming in a
single step. The useful temperature range of the reactions is
between 800 and 1000 °C. The needed energy can come from
any energy source, preferably renewable or nuclear.
In practical use, natural gas is the major source of methane.
Besides methane, natural gas also contains higher hydrocarbons
in various concentrations, which can also undergo bireforming
according to the overall conversion:
The combination of steam and dry reforming (in separate
steps or in a single combined operation) can be used for the
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
conversion of CO2emissions from coal and other fossil fuels
burning power plants as well as industrial sources such as
cement factories, aluminum plants, etc. to methanol. It is also
advantageous for reforming natural gas and geothermal sources
which frequently are accompanied by substantial amounts of
CO2. Otherwise, this CO2would have to be separated, vented
into the atmosphere, or sequestered underground or at the bottom
of the seas. Some natural gas sources contain CO2in concentra-
tions up to 70%.81The natural gas produced at the Sleipner
platform in Norway contains 9% CO2. This CO2is currently
already separated and sequestered beneath the North Sea in a
deep saline aquifer.82,83Algerian natural gas contains CO2
concentrations up to 30%. Iceland’s rich geothermal hot water
or steam have a CO2concentration around 10%.84
Coalbed methane, frequent in many coal mines, as well as
shale gas and tight gas sands are also significant methane
sources for carbon dioxide to methanol conversion.85When coal
is the primary fossil fuel source used for electricity generation,
CO2 formed upon its combustion can be captured and then
converted with coalbed methane available from coal mining
operation to methanol via bireforming.
Methane hydrates present under the seas in coastal and conti-
nental shelf areas and in the permafrost of the arctic tundra are
clathrates. Their amount is estimated to be significantly higher than
all our conventional methane (natural gas) resources.86Their
recovery however is difficult and still a challenge.87,88Methane
hydrates could also be processed, when CO2is available, through
bireforming. Other sources such as methane formed by the
hydrolysis of aluminum carbide could also be used.
It should be mentioned that building on the experience with
autothermal reforming, the concept of “trireforming” was
developed based on the synergetic combination of dry reforming,
steam reforming, and partial oxidation of methane in a single
step.89The exothermic oxidation of methane with oxygen
produces the heat needed for the endothermic steam and dry
reforming reactions, allowing a syngas mixture with a H2/CO
ratio close to 2 suitable for methanol production to be reached.
As part of the natural gas is burned to produce the needed heat,
it also generates excess carbon dioxide which can be recycled
into the process. This would, however, require additional
hydrogen from other sources and/or significantly reduce the
amount of CO2to be recycled.
The viability of processes discussed depends on the avail-
ability of natural gas or other unconventional methane sources,
which are finite and nonrenewable. They will increasingly get
depleted and may become economically too prohibitive to
exploit. In the long term, large-scale, cost-effective production
of hydrogen by electrolysis of water or other water cleavage
processes is therefore essential.
Combining Reduction and Hydrogenation of CO2. Con-
sidering the chemical recycling of CO2to methanol the electrolysis
of water is presently the only feasible alternative to fossil fuels for
the production of hydrogen. However, as mentioned the catalytic
hydrogenation of CO2to methanol produces water as a byproduct.
A third of the hydrogen and the electricity used to produce it is
thus diverted to produce water.
In order to utilize hydrogen more efficiently for CO2
conversion to methanol, initial chemical or electrochemical
reduction of CO2to CO to minimize water formation can be
CO2 reduction to CO can be achieved by the reverse
Boudouard reaction via the thermal reaction of carbon dioxide
with carbon, or coal itself.
This endothermic reaction of coal gasification can be used at
temperatures above 800 °C. The advantage over the steam
reforming of coal, which is somewhat less endothermic (31.3
kcal mol-1), is that it allows recycling of CO2. Coal gasification
with CO2can be conducted using packed bed or fluidized bed
reactors and molten salt media (such as Na2CO3and K2CO3
mixtures).90Two-step thermochemical coal gasification com-
bined with metal oxide reduction have also been proposed and
tested.91,92The coal gasification with CO2has especially been
investigated for the conversion of solar thermal heat to chemical
fuels, which would allow solar energy to be stored and
transported in the form of a convenient fuel such as methanol.
The direct conversion of CO2to CO using a thermochemical
cycle and solar energy is also being studied.93,94Researchers
at the Sandia National Laboratories recently developed a solar
furnace that heats a device containing a cobalt-doped ferrite
(Fe3O4) to temperatures around 1400-1500 °C, driving off
oxygen gas. At a lower temperature, the reduced material FeO
is then exposed to CO2, from which it absorbs oxygen, leaving
behind CO and ferrite, which can be recycled. This technology
shows promise, but its viability on an industrial scale is still
Another method to perform the reduction of CO2 to CO,
which does not require high temperatures, is electrochemical
reduction in aqueous or organic media, i.e.
This approach has been studied using various metal electrodes
in aqueous media.95,96Similar reductions in some organic
solvent media were also studied. Methanol, in particular, used
industrially as a physical absorber for CO2 in the Rectisol
process,59has been extensively studied as a medium for the
electrochemical reduction of CO2.97-99
Electrochemical Production of Methanol from CO2and
H2O. During the electrochemical reduction of CO2in water or
methanol, hydrogen formation competes with the CO2reduction
reaction, therefore reducing the Faradic efficiency of CO2
reduction. Attempts are being made to suppress the hydrogen
In our studies of electrochemical CO2recycling, instead of
considering H2evolution as a problem, we found it advantageous
to generate CO and H2concomitantly at the cathode in a H2/
CO ratio close to 2, producing a syngas mixture (metgas), which
is then further transformed into methanol, allowing the energy
to be used efficiently for CO2 reduction.100An additional
advantage is the valuable pure oxygen produced at the anode,
needed for example in new generation coal burning power
plants. The electrochemical reduction reaction of CO2, however,
still has overpotential and efficiency problems, which must be
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
Regardless, methanol and dimethyl ether can be produced
selectively from CO2via electrochemically generated syngas
(metgas) in the same way as it is done from natural gas or coal.
The advantage is that no purification step is required and no
impurities such as sulfur, which could deactivate the catalyst,
are present. The reaction is preferably run under pressure to
feed directly the metgas into the methanol synthesis reactor.
Direct electrochemical reduction of CO2to methanol without
syngas formation can also be achieved. This reaction is,
however, kinetically rather complex and needs effective elec-
trocatalysts. Generally, in the electrochemical reduction of CO2
Photoelectrochemical conversion of CO2to methanol using light
energy at a semiconductor electrode such as p-GaP has also
been reported and direct conversion of CO2to methanol with
solar energy shows promise.104
To overcome difficulties associated with the formation of
product mixtures in the electrochemical reduction of CO2, Olah
and Prakash developed a process in which formic acid and
formaldehyde, without separation of the initial reaction mixture,
can be converted to methanol in a subsequent secondary
treatment step.43This involves initial formaldehyde dimerization
(Tishchenko reaction) over catalysts such as TiO2and ZrO2to
give methyl formate, followed by hydrogenation.
Formaldehyde can also undergo conversion over solid base
catalysts such as CaO and MgO, in a variation of the Cannizaro
reaction, giving methanol and formic acid. These can then
further react to form methyl formate, which can be hydrogenated
Formic acid formed during the electrochemical CO2reduction
and the Cannizaro reaction can itself serve as a hydrogen source
in the reaction with formaldehyde to form methanol and carbon
This, however, has the disadvantage of producing CO2, which
must be subsequently recycled.
The combination of these reactions in a secondary treatment
step allows to significantly increase the overall efficiency of
electrochemical reduction of CO2to methanol. It is, however,
preferable to develop more effective catalysts that are able to
increase the selective electrochemical reduction of CO2 to
methanol in order to minimize secondary treatments.
Dimethyl Ether (DME) Production from Carbon Dioxide.
The conventional bimolecular dehydration of methanol to DME
is readily carried out catalytically over varied solid acids such
as alumina or phosphoric acid modified γ-Al2O3.
This is already a significant industrial process in countries
such as Japan, Korea, and China with about 4 million tonnes
of DME produced annually. The needed methanol, as discussed,
is currently based on syngas obtained from either natural gas
or coal. Methanol can, however, also come from any other
discussed source. In recent years, direct synthesis of DME from
syngas, combining methanol synthesis and dehydration in a
single step, has been extensively studied. The process essentially
combines methanol synthesis catalyst based on Cu/ZnO/Al2O3
with a methanol dehydration catalyst that is operating preferably
between 240 and 280 °C at pressures between 30 and 70 bar.
Interestingly, the equilibrium conversion in the DME synthesis
is significantly higher than that in the methanol synthesis even
at low pressure.105Using this technology, a demonstration plant
producing 100t DME/day based on a slurry reactor has been
built and tested by Japan Steel Engineering (JFE).
There are two main routes to produce DME directly from
syngas, i.e., (1) and (2) producing water and carbon dioxide,
respectively, as byproduct.26
Route (1) is a combination of methanol synthesis (3) and
methanol dehydration (4) to DME. Reaction (2) combines
reaction (3) and (4) with the water gas shift reaction (5).
Both routes have been utilized. Route (1) is used by Haldor
Topsoe and others, whereas JFE follows route (2). The
byproduct of this route is CO2, the separation of which from
DME is much easier and less energy consuming than the
separation of water from DME. Route (2) also allows a higher
syngas conversion and has the advantage of using a syngas
with a H2/CO ratio of 1. This means that coal gasification or
methane dry reforming could be used to produce the required
syngas. The overall reaction combining methane dry reform-
ing with DME synthesis through route (2) is basically the
reaction of three moles of CH4with 1 mol of CO2with no
hydrogen lost in byproduct water.
In its DME plant, JFE uses an autothermal reforming unit
combining dry reforming and partial oxidation of methane to
produce syngas with a H2/CO ratio of 1. The exothermic
oxidation reaction generates the heat needed for the process but
produces water as a byproduct.
Our discussed bireforming pathway can also effectively
produce DME, either directly using the DME synthesis route
(1) or through methanol. The water formed during the DME
synthesis is recycled into the bireforming step, allowing all the
hydrogen content of the used methane (or natural gas) to be
utilized in DME production.106
The overall reaction for DME synthesis is accordingly again
If coal is the available fossil fuel instead of natural gas, CO2
formed upon its combustion can be captured and converted to
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
methanol using frequently accompanying coalbed methane,
readily available, for example, in the US, Australia, and China.
If natural gas or methane is not available, CO2can first be
chemically (with the Boudouard reaction) or electrochemically
reduced to CO and then reacted with H2generated from water.
Avoiding a separate CO-forming step, CO2 can also be
directly transformed into DME by catalytic hydrogenation. Like
the direct route from syngas to DME, the CO2hydrogenation
to DME route uses a hybrid catalyst consisting of a methanol
synthesis and a methanol dehydration catalyst.107Water formed
can, when needed, be recycled, particularly in arid areas or when
the need for pure water would warrant it.
The Significance of Chemical CO2 Recycling and the
Methanol Economy. The recycling of CO2from industrial or
natural emissions and capture of CO2 from the atmosphere
provides a renewable, inexhaustible carbon source and could
also allow the continued use of derived carbon fuels in an
environmentally carbon neutral way. As discussed presently,
the captured CO2would be stored/sequestered in depleted gas-
and oil- fields, deep aquifers, underground cavities, at the bottom
of the seas, etc. This, however, does not provide a permanent
safe solution, nor does it help our future needs for fuels,
hydrocarbons, and their products. Recycling of the carbon
dioxide via its chemical reduction with hydrogen to produce
methanol and/or DME (i.e., the Methanol Economy) offers in
contrast a viable new permanent alternative. As fossil fuels are
becoming scarcer, capture and recycling of CO2and eventually
atmospheric CO2would continue to support production and use
of carbon-containing fuels such as methanol, DME, and all the
synthetic hydrocarbons and their needed products. We do not
believe that humankind is facing an energy crisis. We are, after
all in the final analysis, obtaining most of our energy in one
form or another from the sun. The problem is not the lack of
energy, but its efficient capture, storage, transportation and use.
The proposed Methanol Economy can fulfill all these require-
ments if we can efficiently in a renewable and economic manner,
recycle CO2, and produce methanol, DME, and their derived
products.40-43Upon their combustion and use, methanol, DME,
and produced synthetic hydrocarbons will form CO2and water.
Overall, the methanol cycle constitutes humankind’s artificial
version of nature’s CO2recycling via photosynthesis (Figure
1). Using this approach, there will be no need to change
drastically the nature of our energy use, storage, and transporta-
tion infrastructure or the continued use of synthetic hydrocarbons
and products. As CO2is available to everybody on Earth, it
would liberate us from the reliance on diminishing and
nonrenewable fossil fuels frequently present only in geopoliti-
cally unstable areas.
FIGURE 1. Carbon dioxide recycling in the Methanol Economy.
J. Org. Chem. Vol. 74, No. 2, 2009
Outlook. We do not believe that there will be a single solution
to the discussed global problems. However, the approach of
the chemical recycling of carbon dioxide to produce carbon
neutral renewable fuels and materials offers a feasible and
powerful new alternative and is entering the stage of gradual
In conclusion, it needs to be again emphasized that the
chemical recycling of carbon dioxide to methanol and DME
provides a renewable, carbon-neutral, inexhaustible source for
efficient transportation fuels, for storing and transporting energy,
as well as convenient starting materials for producing ethylene
and propylene and from them synthetic hydrocarbons and their
products. It thus essentially replaces petroleum oil and natural
gas. While allowing the continued use of carbon-containing fuels
and materials, it also curtains harmful excessive CO2emissions
causing global warming. The concept of what we call the
“Methanol Economy” and much of the underlying chemistry
was developed in our work over the past 15 years and is
discussed in our monograph.2,108The present discussion on the
chemical recycling of carbon dioxide is an important part of
our overall approach.
Acknowledgment. We thank all members of the Olah-Prakash
research groups who have significantly contributed to the
discussed chemical recycling of carbon dioxide to methanol and
DME (and derived synthetic hydrocarbon and their products).
Their names are cited in the references. Our work was supported
by USC’s Loker Institute through generous gifts of friends,
private foundations, and institutions, including the John Stauffer
Charitable Trust and the Hydrocarbon Research Foundation.
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