Making the Case for Mars and Methanol

Robert Zubrin is one of those oddball geniuses who prowl around the peripheries of important national issues making suggestions that may seem completely off the wall but on closer inspection are revealed to have penetrating insight.

I first came across him a couple of years ago while writing about space exploration. Zubrin is perhaps the world’s leading advocate of manned trips to Mars. He’s written five books about making the trip to Mars, including How to Live on Mars (2008), which detailed how to establish a permanent colony on the red plant. None of this is going to happen soon, of course, and even though Zubrin is a highly trained aerospace engineer, it’s easy enough to dismiss him as a fatuous dreamer.

Except for one thing: he has also become the most knowledgeable and well versed advocate of substituting methanol from natural gas for imported oil as a way of breaking the back of OPEC.

Zubrin actually wrote his first highly informed book on the subject – Energy Victory – in 2008, before the fracking revolution began producing prodigious amounts of natural gas. At the time he was suggesting we use our abundant coal resources as the feedstock. Now that George Mitchell’s revolution has pumped up gas production to 24 times the level of 2007, the case is even stronger.

Zubrin has just published a 5,700-word article in the current issue of New Atlantis. I won’t do more than summarize it here, but I would recommend tying it up in a bow and giving it to everyone you know as a Valentine’s Day present. Zubrin wraps up all the major arguments for methanol and even manages to illuminate some obscure details about the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy toward methanol that eluded some of us for some time. Here are his major talking points:

  • OPEC still essentially controls the world price of oil. Even though non-OPEC production has increased 60 percent since 1973, 60 percent of the oil traded around the world is exported from OPEC countries and 80 percent commercially viable reserves are still owned by OPEC members. The price of oil is still set in the Persian Gulf.
  • This oligopolistic control has a huge impact on the American economy. Ten of the last 11 postwar recessions were preceded by sharp increases in oil prices. The recent upsurge in shale oil production won’t help much. The Energy Information Administration expects it to level off after 2016. By 2040 we will still be importing 32 percent of our oil.
  • Methanol made from natural gas is the only commodity that can realistically replace oil. “Methanol is not some futuristic dream touted by researchers seeking funding,” writes Zubrin. “Rather, it is an established chemical commodity, with a global annual production capacity of almost 33 billion gallons. It has recently been selling for around $1.50 a gallon.” Methanol’s energy content is only about 60 percent of gasoline, but the bottom line is that “pure methanol can get a car 30 percent farther down the road than a dollar of gasoline.”
  • Methanol has numerous environmental advantages. In fact, when California put 15,000 methanol cars on the road in the 1990s, it was for air pollution purposes, rather than cutting imports or reducing prices to motorists. Methanol burns cleaner, produces virtually no particulate matter or smog components, has none of gasoline’s carcinogenic aromatic compounds and reduces carbon emissions.  On pollution grounds alone, it would be worth making the transformation.

So why don’t we do it?  As Peter Drucker always said, in order to replace a well established technology, an upstart replacement must be 10 times as efficient to clear the institutional barriers. That’s a tall order. But as Zubrin details, there are some specifics that stand out:

  • In terms of sheer market capitalization, the oil industry far surpasses the auto industry. Thus, even though the auto industry might benefit from opening up to new fuels, the oil companies’ interest in maintaining the status quo overwhelms them. Zubrin documents how institutional investors that own large shares of the auto companies are even more heavily invested in oil. Several OPEC sovereign wealth funds also own huge slices of the auto companies. The Qatar Investment Authority owns 17 percent of Volkswagen, which has the highest auto company revenues in the world.  Its vice chairman sits on Volkswagen’s board.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency, through overregulatory zeal, has somehow ended up as one of the major impediments to methanol conversion, even though there would be vast environmental benefits. Although older cars can easily be converted to run on methanol at a cost of less than $200, the EPA no longer permits it. “Since 2002, the only way for a vehicle modification to be deemed lawful is if it receives certification ahead of time from the EPA or the California air-quality board. . . In 2009, the EPA specified massive fines that it may level against any individual or business that modifies a vehicles without advance certification, even if there is clear and compelling proof that no emissions increase had resulted, or even been risked, by such changes. In fact, even the use of unapproved engine parts identical to the certified brands would be considered an emissions violation . . . These fines are set at thousands of dollars for individuals and hundreds of thousands, or even millions, for manufacturers. For example, if a mechanic running his own small business converting cars to flex-fuel in his garage modified just a dozen cars, he would face a crippling fine of more than $105,000.”

In 2011 on National Review Online, Zubrin offered to bet anyone $10,000 he could modify his 2007 Chevy Cobalt (apparently in violation of EPA regulations) to run on 100 percent methanol and get 24 miles per gallon. He did it by replacing the fuel pump seal with a 41-cents replacement made from a synthetic rubber that resists methanol erosion. He also had to adjust the ignition timing for methanol’s higher octane. He would have won the bet but no one took him up.

As a way of moving the ball forward, Zubrin advocates the Open Fuel Standard Act, which has been sitting around in Congress since 2008. The present version would clear up some of the EPA’s restrictions and require at least 30 percent of each carmaker’s new vehicles be flex-fuel by 2016, moving up to 50 percent by 2107. The modification would only add about $200 to the price of the car.

Zubrin is one of those American treasures, an independent thinker operating outside the world of “policymaking” who dares think differently and big. His ideas for colonizing Mars may never get off the drawing boards.  But his proposal for substituting methanol as a domestic alternative to imported oil certainly deserves the greatest attention.

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