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Believe it or not: Icelandic geothermal to power European cars

Posting in Energy

Journey to the center of your internal combustion engine. Jules Verne sent his famous earthly travelers down through an Icelandic volcano. The island's geological forces will soon find their way into European cars.

Iceland is known for geothermal power. Hot earth generates a quarter of the country's electricity and provides heating to homes, offices and swimming pools.

Now, some of that roiling, boiling energy source will end up in European cars and make them more fuel efficient, thanks to a deal struck by Reykjavik's Carbon Recycling International (CRI) and Dutch oil company Argos.

CRI will provide methanol that Argos will add into gasoline, CRI announced on its website. Methanol-gasoline blends are known to enhance mileage.

But this isn't typical methanol. CRI, as I've reported, is producing methanol from the carbon dioxide emitted from Iceland's HS Orka, one of many geothermal plants in the North Atlantic island nation

CRI refers to its product as "renewable methanol" precisely because it captures CO2 that would otherwise escape to the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

It seems that some of that CO2 would eventually find its way out (chemists or others, feel free to elaborate below!).

Or certainly, the methanol-enhanced internal combustion engines would still pump CO2. When I interviewed CRI CEO K.C. Tran back in  2011 (deals like Argos have been in the works for a while) he told me that the overall benefit is that renewable methanol as a fuel additive could reduce vehicles' CO2 emissions by 30 percent. The reduction could be greater once regulators increase the permissible maximum mix of fuel additives, which today is around 5 percent in the European Union.

CRI now has a brand name for its product, which it calls Vulcanol - a wonderful evocation of the fiery forces that define Icelandic geology and, some say, personalities. Iceland, which straddles two argumentative tectonic plates, is the land where Jules Verne sent his travelers to the center of the earth, through a volcano nonetheless.

The methanol method. Geothermal plants like this one in Pingvellir, Iceland emit small amounts of CO2. Carbon Recycling is capturing the CO2 from a similar facility and converting it to "renewable" methanol.

But wait. Let's go back - CO2 from geothermal? I thought the whole point of "renewable" energies like geothermal was that, besides replenishing themselves, they don't emit CO2?

Well, as with any - I repeat, any - renewable energy source, nothing is ever completely "green." Indeed, Icelandic geothermal does emit CO2. But to be clear, the amount is tiny compared to fossil fuel tendencies - yet ample enough for K.C. & Co. to whip into an environmental improvement for conventional engines. Also, not all geothermal power gives off CO2, although the Icelandic variety does.

And then there's that other renewable power source in Iceland - hydro - which accounts for the other three quarters of the island's electricity, and which combined with geothermal allows Iceland to stand out as a country with 100 percent renewable electricity.

Renewable, that is, until Icleand's glaciers thaw to the point where they can no longer melt enough to keep the lights on in Reykjavik. Some people say that could happen in 150 years.

Time to crank up the geothermal, and to bring on the methanol. CRI follows the "Methanol Economy" precepts laid out by Nobel winning chemist George Olah, who posited that methanol, not hydrogen, could underpin future economic engines. Unlike hydrogen, methanol can travel through existing distribution infrastructure for transportation fuels.

And applying CRI's methods, you could also process it not just from geothermal escape valves, but from many CO2-emitting industrial process, like steel making, for instance.

Note to the carbon capture crowd: Don't store it. Use it!

Images: Illustration from Édouard Riou for Jules Verne's 19th century novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Photo from Gretar Ivarsson. Both via Wikimedia.

A mix of links on methanol and Iceland from SmartPlanet:

And from elsewhere:

— By on February 12, 2013, 9:16 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure