Today's methanol industry is based on technology first developed in the 1960s and the latest process and catalyst know how now resides with Johnson Matthey
Johnson Matthey is the leader in catalysts and technology for producing methanol. We've built up over 70 years' of experience in the industry and established a deep and extensive knowledge in both catalysis science and plant operation know how.
Methanol is an important synthetic material that is used to produce a diverse range of products. Today around 90% of the world's methanol is used in the chemical industry and around 10% is used as an energy feedstock. In China, for example, it is blended with gasoline and used to power vehicles. As interest in new cleaner energy continues to grow, demand for methanol as an energy molecule seems set to follow.
The first plant for processing synthetic methanol was started by BASF in 1923 and over the following decades, a series of plants with capacities of 100 to 500 tonnes per day were operating in the USA. In the early years catalysts based on zinc oxide and chromia were used.
In 1962 ICI filed a patent for the first Low Pressure Methanol (LPM) process and in 1966 it commissioned the first plant based on this novel technology. In this process, methanol is produced over a copper zinc oxide and alumina based catalyst – our KATALCO JM 51-series – via a multi step chemical conversion.
Today this process, catalyst technology and know how reside with Johnson Matthey as a result of the acquisition the ICI business in 2002.
Catalyst formulation is key
The formulation of the catalyst is crucial – it must deliver high activity, selectivity and stability to ensure highly efficient production of methanol. Over the years, investment in R&D has delivered continued incremental improvements in catalyst performance and today, Johnson Matthey holds a leading position with nearly half of the world's methanol being produced using our catalysts and technology.
Our latest generation of KATALCO JM 51-series methanol synthesis catalysts contain a complex mixture of synthetic minerals which have atomic structures designed to promote the methanol synthesis supported on a backbone engineered to stabilise the active catalytic active site, preventing thermal sintering and minimising by product formation.
The unique formulation is based on a copper containing mineral in which a controlled proportion of the copper atoms have been replaced by zinc atoms. The active phase is supported on a specifically designed zinc aluminate compound. The support provides a catalyst which has good mechanical strength throughout its operating life, and also allows reactant gases access to the active copper metal surface. Microcrystalline zinc oxide is also present to protect the copper metal surface sites from poisons such as sulphur and chlorine compounds. In a further unique aspect, magnesia is added to modify the catalyst structure during manufacture to maximise activity throughout catalyst life.
Our scientists continue to develop the mineralogy of our KATALCO JM methanol synthesis catalysts and their production routes to ensure that our catalyst can deliver the maximum activity and selectivity at all times.
A market leading technology
Use of our Low Pressure Methanol (LPM) technology has increased steadily over the years and has been the cornerstone of the methanol industry. This technology is available through Johnson Matthey's Process Technologies business. Since 2004, Johnson Matthey and Davy Process Technologies (DPT) combined and accelerated the development of methanol technologies on an exclusive basis which was followed by the acquisition of DPT by Johnson Matthey in 2006.
Today, the methanol industry as we know it is based almost entirely around the LPM technology and copper based catalysts developed in the 1960s. We are continually working to enhance our offering and thanks to our scientists and engineers, we continue to provide methanol customers around the world with leading edge catalysts and technology.