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Methanol Policy Forum
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.

A 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.

In Kingsport, 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.

Fueling with methanol
A methanol 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 reactors could be brought into electricity production within a relatively short timeframe. The electrical energy 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 produce methanol. 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 regimes.

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.

More information:
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
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