By Abid Iqbal Choon
As we all know, the chase for renewable energy is greater than ever in this age of where capitalism might not care about the future of the next generations. For this article, I would like to share about what my group did for our design project, producing methanol from biomass. Biomass includes things like rice straw, black liquor, wood, animal wastes and municipal wastes. One particular interesting biomass is rice straw in which it will be discussed later for the reasons I felt so.
By using rice-straw as the main biomass feedstock to produce methanol may have been viable in the context of industrial chemical engineering, but I want to bring it one step further (albeit more hypothetically) in this article. I would like to propose the possibility for methanol produced from rice straw to replace fossil fuels as the standard fuel in the world and discuss the non-technical part on the viability.
Before going in detail about what this is all about, firstly one needs to understand what is the role of methanol. Primarily, 40% of the methanol produced is converted into formaldehyde, in which it can be converted into various forms of chemicals. However, that is not the main interest in this article. What’s interesting is that methanol has the potential to be used as a fuel. Usually methanol is used as a fuel in racing cars from different countries.
Why even bother?
One of the major crisis we have in the world at the moment is the sustainability of non-renewable fuels, such as fossil fuels. As much as they are present in the Earth, there’s no denying that there will be a time in the history of mankind where the last drop of fossil fuel will be burnt. Traditionally, methanol has always been made from natural gas in the chemical industry. By considering how producing methanol is actually possible from renewable and (arguably, sustainable) source, a huge effort in establishing the world’s first reliable, renewable and sustainable energy source. One might argue that nuclear energy is the closest to what we would consider to be the ideal renewable, sustainable and clean energy source.
However, based from previous tragedy in the human history, such as Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), the Three Mile Island accident (1979) and the infamous Chernobyl disaster (1986), it can be seen there has been a lot of protest against the use of nuclear energy. Be it the fear that it may be harnessed into a nuclear weapon or the fact that any slight mistake (and bad luck) can cost many lives due nuclear explosions and radiations.
Enter Rice Straw
Rice straw has been chosen to be the most suitable candidate due to a few factors. One of them being rice straw can be found abundantly in places where rice farms are the norm (usually in Asia). Rice straw is also considered to be ‘unwanted’ materials and is usually burnt (which leads to more air pollution). The pollution caused from the rice straw burning has been found to be contributing to air pollution even more than vehicle emissions.  Now, by using rice straw as the feedstock, we are effectively killing two birds with one stone, one being reducing or minimizing the air pollution and potentially, being able to solve one of the greatest crisis of humanity. Since rice straw can be a pretty cheap feedstock, barring the transport costs, it is safe to say it has some promising prospect from the economic point of view.
Will the Big Boys like it?
Now surely, looking at this from the world political view, it is obvious which country would benefit the most–China. China is the world’s largest producer of rice and it accounts for 30% of the world total rice production. Now as it has been mentioned about how there has been anti-nuclear power protestors, it is inevitable that there might be a huge protest around the world. The U.S. for example, would not be very happy if such technology of making bio-methanol from rice straw happens to be a sustainable and stable industrial process as the U.S. has the largest oil reserves in the world, as reported by The Guardian in 2016 where the U.S. had 264 bn barrels of reserve oil, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia at 256bn and 212bn barrels respectively.  By having the world to be suddenly accepting another alternative energy source as the standard fuel will definitely deal a huge blow to the U.S. in terms of their influence and economy.
Surely, now with all the rising political tensions between the U.S and North Korea with China sandwiched at the middle (including the already tense relationship between China and the U.S.), this might not look good if the world starts to abandon the traditional petroleum and slowly gravitates towards using the rice-straw-bio-methanol since the next superpower in the world’s political climate would be China. As sadly as this may sound, even though this might the solution that we have been looking for, either it will be scrapped due to the fear of war being inevitable or the world might just go to war when the standard fuel from fossil fuels is replaced by bio-methanol from rice-straw.
The ethics of using rice-straw?
Another pros of using rice-straw as the biomass feedstock is that it does not compete with food production, unlike sugar cane. In which, cases where greed might overtake ethics as some company might ignore what kind of social repercussions it may have by continuously producing sugar cane in order to maximize profit. Therefore, it can be seen that there’s no clear ethical problems (well, not obvious to me, at least, at this point of writing) for using rice-straw as the feedstock. Instead, by having a systematic process of using rice-straws, it can create job opportunity ranging from collecting the rice-straws, transporting it and chemical plant staff.
As for the more technical part of this ‘dream’ of mine, lies on whether the amount of rice-straws in the world can actually support the world demand of fuel. Although one thing that I can say for sure, with all the bio-related development today, is that one day it will be bio-me-and-all in our daily lives.