Methanol basics

Chemical and physical characteristics of methanol

Methanol is a liquid petrochemical composed of four hydrogen atoms, one carbon atom, and one oxygen atom. Hydrogen-rich, a liter of methanol contains more hydrogen than a liter of hydrogen, which explains why it is such an excellent energy carrier.

Methanol is an alcohol fuel, as are ethanol, butanol, and propanol. All of these fuels have  a high octane rating, which increases fuel efficiency and thereby compensates for a lower energy density relative to gasoline and diesel. In engines optimized for methanol, for example, this results in comparable fuel economy in distance per volume metrics, such as kilometers per litre.

Emissions from methanol vehicles are low in smog-generating reactive hydrocarbons and toxic compounds.They also contain almost no particulate matter and much less nitrogen oxides than diesel emissions.

Methanol production

Methanol can be produced from anything that is, or ever was, a plant. Today, the most common methanol feedstock is natural gas. It can also be produced from coal, municipal waste, landfill gas, wood waste —and, of course, carbon dioxide, which can be captured from industrial processes, or perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, extracted from the atmosphere and oceans.

Methanol applications

Methanol is a versatile compound and global commodity that is the basis for hundreds of chemicals and thousands of products, including paints, synthetic fibers, solvents, carpets, windshield washer fluid, insulation, and particle board. It can also be used as a transportation fuel and fuel cell hydrogen carrier, as well as for wastewater denitrification, biodiesel transertification, and electricity generation.

Methanol as a transportation fuel in the US

In the 1980s and 90s (primarily in the US) nearly 20,000 methanol Flex-fuel Vehicles capable of running on any combination of gasoline and methanol were built and sold by leading automakers. In addition, hundreds of methanol fuel buses were placed in service. Operated for millions of miles with few fuel-related problems, these vehicles conclusively proved that methanol is an excellent, clean-burning transportation fuel. Despite this, by the bfe_130201_taurus-ffvmid-90s, demand for methanol as a transportation fuel in the US had waned. There were numerous reasons, including: a significant drop in the price of gasoline; a sharp rise in the price of methanol; and aggressive lobbying by the politically powerful farm/agribusiness and ethanol lobbies.

Though methanol disappeared from the US transportation fuels map in the mid-90s, over the last 10 years fuel methanol proponents have been rallying and the prospects for its adoption have been improving. The advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for shale gas, greatly boosting supplies of natural gas, a methanol feedstock, has accelerated the fuel methanol movement. Given the indisputable, profound economic benefits (jobs and improved balance of payments) and energy security benefits (displacing OPEC oil) of gas-based fuel methanol, it is reasonable to conclude that it is only a matter of time before the Open Fuel Standard is implemented and methanol becomes an option for American motorists. 

Methanol as a transportation fuel in China

bfe_130201_china-methanolMeanwhile, in China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of methanol and leader in blending it with gasoline, fuel methanol consumption continues to grow. Responding to demand, Chinese automakers such as Geely, Chery, Shanghai Automotive, and Maple are now producing new vehicles capable of running on methanol. In May 2012, Institute for Analysis of Global Security co-director Dr. Gal Luft went to China to learn about China’s experience with methanol blending. Click here to read his findings.



Methanol as a transportation fuel in Israel

An Israeli woman fills up her car with a methanol/gas blend 9M15) at a gas station in Haifa as part of a demonstration to prove that that the blend can be effectively used without modification to to cars or gas stations

Israel is a model for the use of methanol as a transportation fuel for countries such as the US and Canada that have a surfeit of natural gas (which is currently about one-sixth the price of oil on an energy equivalent basis). And like the US and Canada (particularly the US), Israel is a major oil importer, which compromises balance of payments and energy security. The Israeli government, therefore, has determined that converting a certain percentage of its natural gas into methanol for use as a transportation fuel makes perfect sense. To demonstrate that M15 (15%methanol/85% gasoline) can be used in the current  fleet of cars without requiring changes to them or to gas stations, the government, in conjunction with Dor Chemicals and Ten Petroleum is currently testing M15 on the roads of the nation. Test results have proven to be as predicted, further encouraging Dor Chemicals to proceed with plans to build plants in Israel that convert gas to methanol. Many fuel methanol proponents in the US have roots in Israel, so prominent  American regulators and politicians have been apprised of the positive results of Israeli testing. One such individual, Eyal Aronoff, suggests that gas-to-methanol is the business opportunity of the decade in the US. Click here to watch him explain why.