Methanol — the fuel in waiting

Methanol is a bit of a mystery. It is the simplest form of a hydrocarbon, one oxygen atom attached to simple methane molecule. Therefore, it burns. Methanol is one of the largest manufactured trading commodities after oil, and has about half the energy value of gasoline (but its high octane rating pushes this up to 70 percent). It is a liquid at room temperature and would therefore fit right into our current gasoline infrastructure — as opposed to compressed natural gas or electricity, which require a whole new delivery system.

Methanol made from natural gas would sell for about $1 less than gasoline. Methanol can also be made from food waste, municipal garbage and just about any other organic source.

So why aren’t we using methanol in our cars? It would be the simplest thing in the world to substitute methanol for gasoline in our current infrastructure. Car engines can burn methanol with a minor $200 adjustment that can be performed by any mechanic. You might have to fill up a little more often, but the savings on fuel would be significant — about $600 a year. So what’s stopping us?

Well, methanol seems to be caught in a time warp. It is the dreaded “wood alcohol” of the Depression Era. Methanol is poisonous, as opposed to (corn) ethyl alcohol, which only gets you drunk. (In fact, commercial products such as rubbing alcohol are “denatured” by adding methanol so people will not drink them.) But if methanol is poisonous, so is gasoline, as well as many, many other oil products. Yet methanol is somehow caught up in old EPA regulations that make it illegal to burn in car engines — even though it is hardly different from the corn ethanol that currently fills one-tenth of our gas tanks.

Methanol’s main feedstock is natural gas, and for a long time that was seen as a problem. “Methanol wasn’t practical because the price of natural gas was so high and we seemed to be running out of it,” said Yossie Hollander, whose Fuel Freedom Foundation has been promoting the use of methanol for some time. “But now that natural gas prices have come down, it makes perfect sense to use it to make methanol. We could do away with the $300 billion a year we still spend on importing oil.”

The EPA actually granted California an exemption during the 1990s that allowed 15,000 methanol-powered cars on the road. The experiment was a success and customers were happy but natural gas prices reached $11 per million BTUs in 2005 and the whole thing was called off. Only a few months later, the fracking revolution started to bring down the price of natural gas. It now sells at $4 per mBTU. Yet, for some reason the EPA has not yet reconsidered its long-standing position on methanol.

At the Methanol Policy Forum last year, Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), made a very insightful remark. “I think methanol fares poorly in Washington precisely because it doesn’t need any subsidies or government assistance in making it economical. For that reason you have no big constituency behind it and no member of Congress crusading on its behalf.”

That may be about to change, however. China has a million cars burning methanol on the road and wants to expand. In the past few weeks alone, Texas and Louisiana have been hit with what is being called “Methanol Mania.” The Chinese are planning to build six major processing plants to turn the Gulf Coast into the world’s biggest center of methanol manufacture. One project will be the largest methanol refinery in the world, two times the size of one located in Trinidad.

All this methanol is intended to be sent back to China. The Chinese want to employ it as a feedstock for their own plastics industry, plus use it in Chinese cars. They will be shipping it the expanded Panama Canal, which will be completed in 2015.

But at some point someone in this country is going to look around and say, “Hey, why don’t we use some of this methanol to power our own automobiles.” At that point the methanol industry, along with the Texas and Louisiana, may have enough political leverage to get the EPA off the dime and see a decision about using methanol in our cars as well.

(Photo credit: Stockcarracing.com)

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