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Methanol: Alternative to the Battery?

The car industry is desperately looking for solutions for the range and fast charging of e-cars. A start-up is working on a fuel cell powered by methanol - and has solved the problems of range and charging processes. Is methanol a tinkerer's folly or the fuel of the future?

Battery-powered electric cars are supposed to be the future of driving. But anyone who has ever driven an electric car over longer distances knows about the problems with range and charging. While the range is often less than promised and you have to head for the next charging station surprisingly quickly, these are either difficult to find, incompatible with the vehicle or take a small eternity to charge the vehicle.

The inventor and start-up founder Roland Gumpert, a former engineer at Audi, therefore relies on methanol fuel cell technology. A vehicle with this drive ultimately functions similarly to a hydrogen-powered car, except that it does not fill up with hydrogen, but produces it itself from methanol. Methanol can be refuelled in a very short time, similar to petrol and diesel. It is then converted into hydrogen and CO2 while driving. The hydrogen is in turn converted into electricity for the battery and water, just like in a hydrogen car.

The great advantage of the methanol drive is its geographical independence. By simply transporting methanol, similar to diesel and petrol, the fuel can be produced where enough green electricity is available and then transported to those parts of the world where there will be no nationwide charging infrastructure in the near future, for example also parts of Asia, Africa and South America. The methanol drive therefore has the potential to make climate-friendly electric vehicles possible in many parts of the world, unlike battery-powered e-cars or hydrogen vehicles.

The problem is that the production of methanol is still expensive and consumes a lot of electricity. If, for example, natural gas is used for the production, so-called grey methane is produced. While this is emission-free when driving, it is not during production. The natural gas consumes fossil resources whose CO2 is subsequently released into the atmosphere. The CO2 would therefore first have to be extracted from the air during the production of methane so that it could then be released back into the atmosphere without increasing the CO2 in the air. In addition, solar energy, for example, would have to be used to produce the methane. This would make it possible to produce green methane, which is in fact climate-neutral. Although this is still far too expensive, it could generally be possible in the future.

Entrepreneur Gumpert gives the range of the methane vehicles as 800 kilometres and more. He proudly shows off his converted sports car. But inside it slumbers a large lithium-ion battery with a capacity of 70 kilowatt hours. The production of these batteries is also hardly sustainable. But methanol technology has a place in a Smart car, a sports car and even in a truck and might have the potential to gain a foothold in the e-car market in the future. At the moment, however, the industry and politicians seem too focused on purely battery-powered vehicles. In any case, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) has denied Gumpert funding.

Nevertheless, the start-up shows that we are still a long way from the end of alternative drives and gives hope for the green mobility of tomorrow.