West Virginia dignitaries gathered in Institute on Monday to formally christen the US Methanol plant now in service there, which they called the first of its kind in the state.
According to company officials, the $250 million plant is now operating at about 95% capacity with 54 employees and has a goal of employing 60 total when it reaches full capacity “later this year.” Sixty percent of its current employees are local.
Dubbed “Liberty One,” the plant that now stands in Institute’s Industrial Complex was first acquired by the company as it stood in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Workers then disassembled and rebuilt it in West Virginia via eight cargo shipments over a seven-month timeline.
“It’s an engineering miracle, really,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Capito was joined by Gov. Jim Justice, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., and such local officials as Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper and West Virginia State University President Ericke Cage to celebrate the plant’s operational status.
Ground was first broken on the project in fall 2017, just a year after US Methanol was founded by its parent company, private investment firm KKCG in 2016.
KKCG maintains offices in Prague, Czech Republic; Lucerne, Switzerland; London, England; and Boston, Massachusetts. KKCG maintains investments in the lottery & gaming industry, energy, information technology, and real estate.
Construction of the plant was completed in 2022 after delays induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues, according to company officials.
Production began in August 2022.
From its new location, the plant is expected to provide 200,000 metric tons of methanol annually to the Northeastern United States. So far, methanol from the plant has been shipped to industrial users in West Virginia and Kentucky, according to a communications official representing the plant.
“Since we broke ground in September 2017, we have weathered COVID-related shutdowns, significant supply chain delays, other issues with inflation and more, but, if not for commitment of our people, we would not be here today,” said KKCG Chief Financial Officer Katarína Kohlmayer.
“Despite these challenges, our original thesis and belief in this project and the state of [West] Virginia as its home remains strong. With the East Coast still being a net importer of ethanol and West Virginia’s abundance of shale natural gas, water and strategic transport lanes, we feel validated in bringing the first methanol plant to the region.”
Methanol, the most chemically simple alcohol, is highly flammable and burns invisibly. It has a variety of applications in plastics, paints, car parts, construction materials, electronics, silicone sealants and polymers.
It also can be used as a cleaner-burning alternative to gasoline, but methanol still produces carbon dioxide and gets less mileage per gallon because of its lower energy density, according to the University of Southern California. Methanol was marketed as an alternative fuel in the 1990s. At its peak, nearly 6 million vehicles using methanol and methanol blends were driven in the United States annually. The plant does not currently market its methanol as fuel.
“Chronic or repeated exposure to methanol is suspected to be a developmental toxicity risk. It is unknown whether chronic or repeated exposure to methanol is a reproductive toxicity risk,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Methanol may cause birth defects in the central nervous system in humans.”
The CDC says poisoning from repeated exposure to methanol vapor may cause recurrent headaches, insomnia, visual failure, inflammation of the eyes, giddiness and stomach disturbances.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, methanol is produced via conversion from carbon-based feedstocks, such as biomass, natural gas, and coal. Currently, natural gas is considered the most economical feedstock.
According to company officials, methanol is produced at the plant by steam-reforming natural gas at high-temperatures in two reformers to create a synthesis gas consisting of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen.
The gas is then fed into a high-pressure reactor with a catalyst (copper) that produces crude methanol and water vapor. The methanol is then removed of impurities.
“Now we see the unbelievable amount of energy we have under our feet every day with the Marcellus Shale and Utica shale and being able to do so much with it, there’s so many products of that,” Manchin said. “Seeing the chemical industry come back to life again, and the opportunities we have, is unbelievable and methanol is a perfect fit.”