Dr. Ernest Moniz, distinguished MIT professor and President Barrack Obama’s nominee for US Secretary of Energy, played an integral role in a 2010 MIT study that concluded that methanol is the ‘liquid fuel most efficiently and inexpensively produced from natural gas.’ A portion of the record from the April 9th Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources hearing on his nomination is featured below. This excerpt certainly supports the views of supporters of the Open Fuel Standard and the adoption of methanol as a transportation fuel.
SEN. CANTWELL: As I understand it, today the U.S. produces roughly 280 million gallons of methanol, primarily from the steam reformation of natural gas, and by 2015 that number will increase to one billion gallons. On the ground that means three methanol plants will be reactivated in Texas and a fourth will be moved from Chile to Louisiana to take advantage of today’s lower natural gas costs. In a study published in 2010, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that methanol was the ‘liquid fuel most efficiently and inexpensively produced from natural gas,’ and they recommended methanol as the most effective way to integrate natural gas into our transportation economy.
Dr, Moniz, I would appreciate knowing if you were involved with this study and your personal views as to the potential of using methanol to power our transportation system given America’s now abundant supplies of cheap natural gas. I understand that at today’s natural gas prices methanol costs about 35 cents a gallon to produce, and for the past five years the wholesale price for natural gas-derived methanol has ranged between $1.05 and $1.15 a gallon. How do you think the price of methanol will change over the next decade as the price of natural gas changes?
DR. MONIZ: I was the co-director of this study. Its findings and recommendations were achieved by the consensus of the 19 faculty and senior researchers involved in the study. The U.S. has significantly increased domestic natural gas and oil production over the last several years, with important implications and possible opportunities for diversifying the nation’s transportation fuel mix. This diversification remains an economic and national security imperative. The President’s All-of-the-Above Energy policy supports more choices for Americans among available modes of transportation and types of fuel.
There are many conversion routes for deriving liquid fuels from natural gas. Methanol is simplest and, like ethanol, needs modest engine modifications for flex fuel operation (possibly even tri-flex-fuel). More complex and costly conversion could yield “drop-in” fuels. If confirmed, I am committed to exploring the safe and environmentally sustainable development of all economically viable transportation fuels to increase consumer choice, reduce prices, improve our balance of trade, and enhance national security. Clearly higher natural gas prices would increase methanol costs, and conversely for lower prices. While I won’t speculate on the future price of methanol, I appreciate both the economic and diversity benefits of methanol as a transportation fuel, as well as the challenges it poses to both fueling infrastructure and vehicle design, especially in the context of ability to meet future environmental emissions standards over a wide range of tri-flex-fuel operation.
SEN. CANTWELL: The seminal Massachusetts Institute of Technology Institute report entitled “The Future of Natural Gas 2011” found that “methanol could be used in tri-flexible-fuel, light-duty (and heavy-duty) vehicles in a manner similar to present ethanol-gasoline flex fuel vehicles, with modest incremental vehicle cost. These tri-flex-fuel vehicles could be operated on a wide range of mixtures of methanol, ethanol and gasoline. For long distance driving, gasoline could be used in the flex-fuel engine to maximize range. Present ethanol-gasoline flex-fuel vehicles in the U.S. are sold at the same price as their gasoline counterparts. Adding methanol capability to a factory 85% ethanol blend (E85) vehicle, to create tri-flex fuel capability, would require an air/fuel mixture control to accommodate an expanded fuel/air range with addition of an alcohol sensor and would result in an extra cost of $100 to $200, most likely at the lower end of that range with sufficient production.” Dr. Moniz, were you involved with this study and do you generally agree with its conclusions? What can DOE do to promote greater adoption of tri-flexible-fuel vehicles?
DR. MONIZ: I was the co-director of this study. Its findings and recommendations were achieved by the consensus of the 19 faculty and senior researchers involved in the study. Flex fuel vehicles were also a topic discussed in detail at a MIT symposium last year. Such vehicles may help enhance US energy security by diversifying our sources of liquid fuels. If confirmed, I would recommend that this technology pathway be examined in the Quadrennial Energy Review.