Methanol (not the same as ethanol!) is an alcohol fuel that can be used in flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs). FFVs are designed to operate on alcohol, on gasoline, or on any mixture of the two. Nearly three million FFV's have been manufactured since 1996 (most of them ethanol-gasoline FFVs). The only difference between an FFV and a gasoline-only car is a different control chip in the fuel line and some different fittings, since alcohol is more corrosive than gasoline. The manufacturing cost differential due to these changes is under $100 per vehicle. That cost would be reduced further as volume of FFVs increases, particularly if flexible fuel designs were to become the industry standard. Methanol is generally used as a blend of
85% methanol and 15% gasoline (M-85), but some vehicles can use up to 100% methanol. It is a high performance fuel used by the Indy 500.
Today, methanol is produced in the U.S. for mostly nonfuel usage. There are eighteen U.S. methanol production plants,
with a total annual capacity of over 2.6 billion gallons. Most of the methanol in the U.S. is produced from natural gas.
Shifting to methanol as a major
transportation fuel requires greatly upping production. The biggest potential sources of methanol
in the U.S. are natural gas and coal. (Oil can also be used to produce
methanol, but this would defeat the purpose!)
We've come a long way since the days when coal usage
was synonymous with terrible pollution. These days plants using coal are among the cleanest
power sources in the U.S. And plants
using coal to produce methanol are the cleanest by far. By a simple reaction between coal and steam, a gas
mixture called syn-gas (synthesis gas) is formed. The components of this mixture are carbon
monoxide and hydrogen, which through an additional chemical reaction are converted to methanol.
major powerplant in Tampa, Florida, built under the auspices of the Department of Energy,
has proven the feasibility of converting coal to syn-gas on a very large scale.
This process does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Although the syn-gas in this plant is utilized as fuel for gas turbine electric generators, the
same process can be taken a step further, by reacting the carbon monoxide and hydrogen
in the syn-gas over a catalyst, to produce methanol on a large scale. Not only are
the emissions of this syn-gas plant well below regulatory limits - it is one of the cleanest coal-based
power plants in the world - but the sulfur content of the coal is utilized as raw material for
fertilizer production, rather than being emitted to the atmosphere as a pollutant.
Tennessee, a plant participating in the Department of Energy's Clean Coal Technology Program
combines both processes, for clean mass production of methanol from coal at under $0.50 a gallon.
production plant utilizing natural gas can be built
a bit (perhaps a year) quicker than an equivalent
plant using coal. Natural gas can be reformed, or else, by partial oxidation, converted,
to syn-gas which is later made into methanol.
Biomass can be converted to
syn-gas by a process called partial oxidation, and
later converted to methanol. Biomass is organic material, such as
urban wood wastes, primary mill residues, forest residues, agricultural residues,
and dedicated energy crops (e.g. sugar cane and sugar beets,) that can be made into fuel.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates 2.45 billion metric tons a year
of biomass are available for U.S. fuel production. One ton can be converted
to 186 gallons (721 liters) of methanol.
In the United States there are numerous unused nuclear reactors. These
could be brought into electricity production within a relatively short timeframe. The
produced by these reactors could be utilized to convert water into hydrogen by
one of several processes. This hydrogen could be further reacted with carbon dioxide to
It is time to openly and thoroughly examine the feasibility of using our built and unutilized
nuclear infrastructure to produce hydrogen based fuels such as methanol. While nuclear energy is feared by many,
it is a greatly misunderstood resource. Nuclear power is utilized as a prime energy source
in countries like France and Sweden.
In the United States, where nuclear energy supplies about 20% of our electrical
power, not one American has been killed in a nuclear accident
involving radiation exposure. On the other hand, thousands of Americans have been killed as a
result of the funds that oil dependence funnels to terrorist sponsoring
Electricity can also be generated by solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy sources
(while these resources supply a much smaller amount of energy than nuclear power and can't
supplant our other energy sources, they are an important supplement we should fully utilize.)
As just mentioned, electricity can
be used to convert water into hydrogen, which is then reacted
with carbon dioxide to form methanol.
Georgetown University Advanced Vehicle Development Program: An Investigation of the Feasibility of Coal-Based Methanol for Application in Transportation
Fuel Cell Systems, April 2004 - Summary,
Full report DOE Assessment: Commercial-scale demonstration of the liquid phase methanol
(LPMEOH™) clean coal to methanol process Final project report: Commercial-scale demonstration of the liquid phase methanol (LPMEOH™) clean coal to methanol process
EU study: Methanol from biomass - competitive with gasoline Information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):Clean Alternative Fuels - Methanol Factsheet
Chemicals in the Environment: Methanol
Methanol fuels and fire safety Further Reading
Evaluation of the Fate and Transport of Methanol in the Environment