Methanol and the Flex-Fuel Arguement

Tis yet another story about high gas prices and how to solve the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. It is a subject that we’ll never hear the end of. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by an article in The Economist on the prospect of using methanol more widely as a fuel. Of course, there are always drawbacks that accompany the many good aspects of the idea, but it presents a pretty good argument.

First subject: ethanol and its growing (no pun intended) unpopularity. Farmers lost their tax credit on E85 in January, and there have been minimal efforts to reinstate because of the public uproar over soaring food prices resulting from ethanol use in fuels. Even bioethanol has been heavily criticized for causing more, not less, environmental damage than fossil fuels [1]. With ethanol becoming less of a player, methanol asks for a chance to get in on the game.

Thanks to the natural gas boom, methanol seems like a pretty good alternative fuel. Made from methane, the main component of natural gas, methanol is clean burning and has a spot price of about $1.10 a gallon [2]. To make it, methanol reacts with high pressure steam in the presence of a nickel catalyst to produce “syngas”, a mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The second and final step involves another catalyst (usually a blend of copper, zinc oxide and alumina) to get the methanol product [1]. Though the two-step process seems simple, the first part involves taking off a hydrogen atom from the very stable methane molecule, a very energy intensive step. Modern catalysts can eliminate the intermediate syngas stage though, so we’ll see if the process can become cheaper.

One downside of methanol is its lower energy content, which is only half as much as petrol. Still, alcohols like methanol have higher octane ratings than petrol, meaning they can tolerate higher compression ratios without causing the air-fuel mixture in the cylinders to explode prematurely (also known as “knocking”) [1]. Instead, they burn smoothly. A high compression ratio means that more energy in the fuel can be converted into work, and an engine could potentially be more fuel efficient if designed to take advantage of this high octane rating.

There are other reasons to be uncomfortable with methanol; it burns with an invisible flame (dangerous), is more corrosive than ethanol (bad for aluminum, rubber, and other synthetic polymers found in motor vehicles), and causes blindness if consumed (no more siphoning gas). Though engines today are more tolerant of methanol, these are still important risks to consider.

On the other side, with the cost of converting a petrol-powered vehicle to run equally on methanol down to $100, methanol producers say they can offer the same quantity of energy found in gallon of petrol for $3 [1]. They say this estimate takes in account methanol’s lower energy content and cost of added infrastructure. Since the estimate is coming from those who sell it, it would need to be double checked. Opponents could probably come up with an entirely different conclusion, but it’s still an idea to entertain.

So, say that methanol IS the next best thing (or at least a good thing…it will not solve all of our problems), there would have to be changes in law to require new cars to be warranted to run on all-alcohol fuels (including methanol), and oil prices would have to stay constant at over $100 for at least five years instead of jumping all over the place. This way we could be confident that these alternative measures do indeed need to be taken, and people would have a reason to switch.

In regards to the political aspect above, a new argument emerges. Bills are already pending in both houses of Congress that require car makers to enable fuel competition in their own product lines. This could include adding flex-fuel, all electric, or hybrid electric vehicles [2]. The timeline for the bill requires 50% of cars to be compatible (in the above ways) by 2014, 80% by 2016, and 95% by 2017 [3]. The bill seems attractive in certain aspects: taking advantage of the abundance of natural gas by using it as fuel in a number of ways and promoting more alternative fuels. But is it too much of a push? Some think it is a little too forceful too early; there may be a time for this, but not now. There are many groups (some that have historically disagreed on many subjects) that unite in the proposition of this law. Environmentalists, automakers, United States Chamber of Commerce, Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Meat Institute came together to write a letter addressed to the House and Senate majority leaders saying that consumers who wanted flex-fuel vehicles could already buy them [4].

True, the bill does seem a bit forward, but do we need this shove in order to develop and use these alternative fuels? It could just be getting a head start so that when the situation gets REALLY bad, we’ll be ready. It’s definitely the push that methanol needs to be a game player. Though it has its disadvantages, it is still a good option in the fuel mix. My guess is that if it doesn’t happen now with the help of the new Flex-Fuel Ammendment, it will probably happen later.

[1]”Difference engine: Meet the meth drinkers” http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2012/03/alternative-fuels

[2] “A Flex-Fuel Mandate is Pro-Market” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204653604577251722168929822.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

[3] H.R. 1687 – Open Fuel Standard Act of 2011 http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c112:H.R.1687:

[4] “Flex-Fuel Amendment Makes for Strange Bedfellows” http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/flex-fuel-amendment-makes-for-strange-bedfellows/

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Methanol and the Flex-Fuel Arguement

  1. spencerdrake03

    I agree with you on the part that this will always be a never ending debate. Upon reading your comment it really opened my eyes to methanol as a flex-fuel. With the ever changing fuels and electrical options methanol never seemed like a huge option to me. Upon the reading you provided and my own research I can see how methanol would be a valid option. It has been shown to provide more horsepower and a higher rate of acceleration due to the high octane number along with the ability to cool the engine quicker. While methanol is dangerous to burn it has been shown to be a safer fuel than gasoline by burning 1/8 the heat(1). When reading about the bills being proposed at congress I tend to agree with you on the fact that they might be a little too much of a push. It is shocking that upon researching and seeing all the information of methanol as a flex-fuel it has not been used more. So while this might be a good option at the moment due to oil prices it would require certain bills to be passed. Personally with the way that the industry and the “green” world is taking over I see more research and intuition going toward the electric cars. So while the methanol might not be the best available and most reasonable option for every vehicle it can be a valuable option that requires a good argument.
    1.) “Methanol Flex Fuel Vehicle (M85)” http://nordicgreen.eu/gasoline-high-blend-m85/

  2. At the first annual Methanol Policy Forum in Washington, DC — held yesterday and hosted by the Methanol Institute and the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security — DOE Assistance Secretary David Sandalow’s opening remarks mirrored a lot of what you’ve said here. Sandalow’s comments are summarized here: http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/focus-on-methanol/

    One thing that’s often left out of the discussion on the promise of methanol, however, is the question of certainty about natural gas prices. What reason is there to believe that historically low prices are here to stay, especially as more and more power plants fuel-switch to natural gas (and thus drive up demand)?

  3. altheokay

    Methanol fuel aside for a second, I think that the bill has the right idea with regards to flex fuel. The more I dig into this stuff, the more I realize that there is just no golden bullet technology or resource that will swoop in and make it all better. We just use sooooo much energy, to put the load entirely (or mostly) on a single resource is just not reasonable.

    I like the methanol idea, as we are finding more and more natural gas that could be tapped into, but no matter how you spin it, it is a non-renewable resource, and it will run out eventually. At the same time, the scale of our energy usage just seems too large to be grown (algae, ethanol) or just get from waste streams (cellulosic, cow dung, etc.). Having a diverse fuel set seems essential to the future, and that requires having vehicles that can handle a wide array of fuel types.

    So all that being said, while I agree that the bill might be a little bawdy and jumping the gun a little, maybe that is what we need to be prepared. There are some advances being made in the realm of multifuel vehicles (Volvo made a prototype that runs on 5 fuels [1]), but I can’t imagine a major change in vehicles on the road without a powerful catalyst, and short of being near the end of our conventional fuel supply and prices skyrocketing as a result, I can’t really think of another catalyst powerful enough to bring about change.

    Besides, the sooner our new cars have diverse fueling options, the sooner our used cars will, so people like me who don’t buy a car less than a decade old may be able to get a flex fuel or hybrid car in time for the next major oil crisis.

    [1]http://www.greencarcongress.com/2006/06/volvo_to_previe.html

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