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Taking another look at methanol as an alternative transportation fuel for the US

A recent white paper by Leslie Bromberg of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Wai K. Cheng of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory assessing the prospects for methanol as an alternative transportation fuel in the US concludes that methanol is a safe and viable transportation fuel, although it not as good as ethanol in terms of energy density and ease of handling. However, while significant investment would need to be made for large-scale methanol deployment in the transportation sector, there is no technical hurdle both in terms of vehicle application and of distribution infrastructure, they noted.

While methanol has not become a substantial transportation fuel in US despite earlier trials, its present large industrial scale use and the former availability of production methanol flex-fuel vehicles (FFV)—developed as part of the earlier methanol programs—have demonstrated that it is a viable fuel and technology exists for both vehicle application and fuel distribution.

Large scale production of methanol from natural gas and coal is a well-developed technology and there is progress on the economic conversion of biomass to methanol using thermo-chemical processes. In comparison, they noted, the technology for bio-chemical ethanol production from cellulosic biomass is not sufficiently developed yet. Sufficient feedstock of natural gas and coal exists to enable the use of non-renewable methanol as a transition fuel to renewable methanol from biomass, they suggested.

Methanol first surfaced as a potentially interesting transportation fuel in the wake of the oil crisis in 1973. The early interest resulted in several programs, mainly based in California, for its use. Bromberg and Cheng attributed the failure of methanol in becoming a substantial transportation fuel component in US earlier to several factors:

  • Methanol was introduced in a period of rapidly falling petroleum fuel prices; there was no economic incentive for continuing the methanol program.
  • There is no strong advocacy for methanol (unlike ethanol) as a transportation fuel; therefore, they said, it has been displaced by ethanol as oxygenate of choice in gasoline blends. Furthermore, while generating methanol from biomass thermochemically is a well developed technology, there is little advocacy for that as a pathway towards replacing petroleum fuel with renewables. Instead, crop-based ethanol has been promoted by the federal government (through tax incentives) as the transition fuel towards cellulosic bio-fuel production.

Among methanol’s attractive attributes for transportation are:

  • It is a liquid fuel which can be blended with gasoline and ethanol and can be used with today’s vehicle technology at minimal incremental costs.
  • It is a high octane fuel with combustion characteristics that allow engines specifically designed for methanol fuel to match the best efficiencies of diesels while meeting current pollutant emission regulations.
  • It is a safe fuel. The toxicity (mortality) is comparable to or better than gasoline. It also biodegrades quickly (compared to petroleum fuels) in case of a spill.
  • There is a very large potential supply of methanol since it can be made from natural gas, coal and biomass feedstocks.
  • Produced from renewable biomass, methanol is an attractive green house gas reduction transportation fuel option in the longer term. A bridging option is to use methanol derived from natural gas, with a CO2 intensity that is no worse than conventional fuels. There is also the possibility of achieving greenhouse gas reduction by CO2 sequestration in the methanol generation process.
  • Multiple ways exist for introduction of methanol into the fuel infrastructure (light blends or heavy blends) and into vehicles (light duty or heavy duty applications). The optimal approaches are different in different countries and in different markets.

Methanol from non-renewable coal or natural gas could be used as a bridging option towards transition to renewable methanol for sustainable transportation. Methanol can readily be made from natural gas or coal (there is plentiful supply in the US of both) so that large scale domestic production, infrastructure, and vehicle use could be developed. The resulting transportation system could then be transitioned to the renewable methanol. It should be further noted that such system is also amenable to the use of renewable ethanol, should large scale bio-production of cellulosic ethanol be realized in the future.

—Bromberg and Cheng

To introduce methanol significantly into the market place, Bromberg and Cheng wrote, both methanol vehicles and fuel infrastructure have to be deployed simultaneously.

Vehicle use and optimization. Performance of methanol FFVs—i.e., a vehicle that can run on M85 (85% methanol) as well as gasoline—has been comparable or slightly better than conventional gasoline. However, they noted, options exist for better performance/efficiency using the excellent combustion properties of methanol:

  • Small displacement, stoichiometric light-duty engines;

  • Direct Injection Alcohol Boosted (DIAB), a two-tank system that uses direct injection (DI) of methanol when the engine is prone to knock (usually at conditions of high torque). In the DIAB concept, DI of the knock suppressing fuel is used only in the amount required to prevent knock and gasoline is supplied to the cylinder by conventional PFI (port fuel injection).

    Since the engine operates at stoichiometry (using a typical oxygen feedback), a very high specific torque output can be produced while emissions can be maintained at low levels through the well-proven and relatively simple three-way catalyst system without the use of EGR as a major diluent.

    The technology opens the possibility of a spark-ignited gasoline engine operating at high compression ratio (12 - 14) and high boost ratios of 2.0- 2.5 times ambient pressure, which is sufficient to produce a torque output equivalent to or greater than more highly turbocharged heavy duty diesel engines operating lean with significant EGR. The methanol-boosted DIAB engine can be almost as efficient (as measured by BTE, brake thermal efficiency) as a diesel and have comparable specific CO2 emissions as well. The concept has been demonstrated and proven in systematic dynamometer tests at Ford. In addition, Honda has independently investigated the concept.

  • Medium duty applications in a dedicated alcohol (methanol and ethanol) engine, using high level blends of alcohols. Researchers at the US EPA investigating this approach concluded that the M85 and E85 engines could provide efficiencies comparable or higher than the diesel, in dedicated fuel, high compression ratio turbo charged/downsized engines. Preignition was avoided using a combination of intake air temperature control and latent heat cooling of the charge air from the vaporization of the fuel. Cooled EGR was used to lower the engine-out NOx levels, reduce the need for intake throttling at low to moderate loads while maintaining stoichiometric operation, suppress the tendency for knock at higher compression ratio, and maintain reasonable turbine inlet temperatures.

  • Directly injected spark ignited heavy-duty engines. Small, very high power density, spark ignition engines which are fueled with ethanol, methanol or mixed alcohols can be used as a substitute of heavy duty diesel engines, with higher engine thermal efficiency and much reduced size and weight. In this manner a 4 liter engine could potentially be used to replace a diesel engine with a displacement as high as 11 liters. (Earlier post.)

The “methanol economy” in the US has the potential to substantially decrease energy dependence, providing energy security using domestic feedstocks and labor, with substantially lower footprint to the environment (GHG), with a product that seems competitive in the present markets. However, substantial obstacles exist (lack of vehicle/infrastructure/manufacturing) which can be overcome with market incentives. In the US there is not enough biomass to displace all of the transportation fuels with methanol.

Methanol can be used directly in fuel cells. Although this technology is making inroads in electronics, with low power requirements, the technology is still too early in its development, unlikely to achieve significant commercialization in the transportation sector within the next 2 decades.

A full comparison between the different options has to be done, reflecting the present conditions. Although an attractive fuel, methanol is not a silver bullet that is better than the alternatives in all categories, and it is likely that a combination of the proposed solutions (including ethanol/methanol/gasoline mixtures and NG) is better suited to solve the massive transportation problem. The preferred solution may depend on the region, the market sector and other externalities, including past and present policies.

—Bromberg and Cheng




IMO, methanol has excellent potential as a transitional fuel especially if our natural gas supplies turn out to be as abundant as the potential gas committee seems to think. With a concerted effort, the U.S. could run >90% of its class 8 trucks on methanol within ten years. With the proper incentives, we could see the majority of our light passenger vehicles be plug in hybrids with methanol fueled range extenders. We would only need minor changes to our existing gas stations to accommodate methanol.... the technology is there, we just lack the political will.


Also, methanol is one of the easiest products to make from syngas (which is why Range Fuels finally went over to it after giving up on ethanol). If we start generating fuel from random waste, methanol is likely to be the most cost-effective liquid motor fuel.


And the approval of interest (oil-ethanol-corn etc) lobbies?

Alex Kovnat

If we must use the synthesis gas route to make liquid fuels from natural gas or biomass, I would prefer to manifest the energy content of CO + H2 not as methanol, but as a mixture of alcohols, i.e. methanol, ethanol, propanol and butanol. Methanol is of interest mainly because it is the only chemical that one can create from syngas with nearly 100% specificity. While we cannot produce ethanol with any great degree of specificity, hopefully we may be able to create a mixure of alcohols that would offer high antiknock (octane), along with reasonable energy content.


The advantage of pure methanol is that it can be used at nigh-ridiculous boost pressures, allowing engines to be radically downsized without sacrificing power. Smaller engines have less friction and pumping losses, so a dual-tank fuel system using MeOH as octane enhancer can stretch petroleum much more than its energy content or even total volume would otherwise suggest or allow.


@ HarveyD

How about the approval interest of the Litium Battery Lobby?

Martin Snigg

Robert Zubrin'Energy Victory' and George Olah et al 'The Methanol Economy' are excellent resources too.

I've been teaching the methanol economy as a chemistry unit for some time and obviously am convinced (as are the Chinese) of its viability.

GasTechno(C) direct non-catalytic partial oxidation of methane, as well as discoveries of efficient catalysts recently in syngas gas-liquids processes are a couple of exciting news stories too.

US could become Middle East of liquid fuels with this thinking.

Henry Gibson

Methanol was called wood alcohol because it was made at one time by heating wood in a closed retort to make charcoal and other chemicals. Henry Ford processed the waste wood from his factories that way when cars used a lot of wood in their construction. The methanol was used to dissolve the paint that was put on the cars.

Making methanol directly by oxidizing methane (CH4+0=CH3OH) is the "holy grail" of the petroleum industry, and would mean that natural gas would never be flared at oil wells again or even land fills. The home owner with a small unit could make his automobile fuel methanol out of the natural gas that came in the pipe.

CSIRO may be the first to be able to provide such units.

It is not thoroughly discussed in this article that methanol can directly made into gasoline with a simple process that uses special ZEOLITES as catalysts in known and used process. Methanol has a long life, and was once used in race cars to eliminate much of the problems of fighting fires on the track, but was replaced by ethanol to please corn growers perhaps.

If you have your own forest, you can make methanol with the original process. The remaining charcoal can be used in a very efficient Kalle gasifier also to power an engine.

In Hawaii, a scientist is making charcoal very rapidly from any biomass with pressurized partial combustion. Kingsford was one of the first to obtain a license for the process. If you do not wish to use a Kalle gasifier, It does remain the need to develop a small unit to convert this charcoal also into methanol.

Computer controlled electric engine valves have been possible for over twenty years, and an engine with such could adapt to any fuel at the best efficiency. It is no longer acceptable not to have such ability that could be combine with direct fuel injection and electro-turbo-supercharging for small efficient engines that can start without a starting motor; except the one that powers the supercharger.

The US has no reason to pay 120 dollars for fuel that can be had for 20 dollars from coal. Ethanol is a waste of biomass and capital relative to methanol production as well.


What about economics?


In our new age democracy, lower cost, simplicity, sustainability, lower GHG, governments, voters etc no longer decide what is good for us and the country. That also applies to methanol, ethanol, butanol, NG/SG, coal, gasoline, electrified vehicles etc.

Our new Kings-Lords-Dictators, i.e. (Speculators, lobbyists, Tea Parties and friends) do it for us.

Let's face it, the people we strongly believed we freely elected are no longer the real decision makers we think they are.

We elect people who have access to the deepest pockets for a winning campaign. It's more a question of money to buy more destructive Ads (and votes) than the value of the persons to be elected.

Ways must be found to remove the growing control that money exercises on our democratic system. To start with, all election expenditures should be limited, controlled and financed with public funds. No individual, organisations or firms should be allowed to finance elections because they will always expect pay back and they do get it.


"(which is why Range Fuels finally went over to it after giving up on ethanol)."

Range has made no decision publicly to focus only on methanol. The current output is part of a development phase and production of ethanol is a second "phase" in the Range Fuels business plan.

In either case, fueling PHEVs or FFVs with any viable alcohol made from waste in the domestic market is a huge WIN for sustainability. And should not be dismissed.


And don't think for a moment that the cellulosic ethanol industry is pedaling backwards:

This Fulcrum Bioenergy plant is being built by DEEP pockets Fluor Corp.

Fulcrum hopes to produce 10.5 million gallons of ethanol a year from 90,000 tons of garbage at the plant when it gets going. The plant will also generate some electricity for its own operations and will produce the industrial solvent propanol.


Range Fuels had hopes, too. So have many others. Big companies like Fluor will happily take grant money to prove something doesn't work. Let me know when they're doing it, then we'll talk.


EP - are you saying the type of alcohol produced from common waste makes any kind of real difference? I thought the idea of being "green" was to produce sustainable methods of energy? NO?

Sometimes naysayers cannot help themselves. They revel in deriding every effort - even those that deliver the very thing they claim to want. Which proves them not men of science or environmental stewardship - but mere doom and gloomers with chips on shoulders.


The type of alcohol does make a difference. If you're going to optimize systems, you need a consistent product. The octane rating and heat of evaporation of alcohols varies widely between methanol and propanol, so a system which dispenses mixtures (esp. variable mixtures) can't be designed to take full advantage of any one property.

If we're going to make a liquid fuel, I'm for methanol. The octane rating and high heat of evaporation allow very heavy turbocharging without knock or EGR, so the volumetric and thermal efficiency can both be quite high. IIRC, a turbo DISI engine running on methanol can get as much power out of 4 liters as an 11-liter diesel while still meeting emissions and at similar efficiency.

Going back to production, methanol is a simple product to make from syngas. If we're going to gasify stuff to make synthetic fuel, it's the path of least resistance.

Henry Gibson

Computer operated engine valves will allow any type of fuel to be used in an optimum way, and can be combined with electro-turbo-supercharging. Methanol can be made from coal for less than 50 cents a gallon. And oil speculators lobby against any synthetic fuels from coal or oil shale so they don't miss out on their $100 a barrel, $4.00 a gallon profits. So far China Has missed the opportunity to supply the world with synthetic fuel (methanol) at a profit. Oil producers can still make a profit with oil at $20, but they pay lobbyists to keep it in the ground until they can get $100. ..HG..



The type of election laws you propose are not utopic. In Europe, most - if not all - countries have severe restrictions on campaign-sponsoring, and it's almost impossible in Europe to 'buy the senate'. It is remarkable that the US, whose constitution was founded on the aversion of the abuse of power by the wealthy in 18th century Europe, is now moving in this very direction. But don't give up, a few laws can do the job. The only thing you need is an enlightened senate.


EP, falling back on the chemistry of alcohols does little to dismiss your clearly derisive attitude. Methanol or ethanol made from waste biomass by Range Fuels or Coskata or any other biofuel maker is a fuc*ing GIFT to the environmental movement. And frankly I am getting sick of listening to the loud mouth naysayers here who hide behind technical effluvia as reason to critique every productive act that meets THEIR green agenda.

How bout showing a little effing gratitude EP, Harvey, Henry Gibson? How bet get off your high horse and fake some enthusiasm??? Or maybe you just want to try to do this yourself?? Good fuc*ing luck.

falling back on the chemistry of alcohols does little to dismiss your clearly derisive attitude.
Funny, I thought it was the ridiculous policy discrimination in favor of 2-carbon alcohol vs. 1-carbon alcohol which justified derision (as well as the implicit claim that alcohol fuel can eliminate our petroleum supply problems). Thanks for reading my true intentions, which I didn't know.
Methanol or ethanol made from waste biomass by Range Fuels or Coskata or any other biofuel maker is a fuc*ing GIFT to the environmental movement.
Ah, yes, Range Fuels. Promised 100 million gpy of EtOH, invested $320 million, failed to perform for years, and lately scaled back to 4 million gpy of MeOH before laying off all but a skeleton maintenance crew. What kind of gift is that? I think it's usually called a "white elephant".

It would have been far better if they just went for MeOH in the first place.

How bout showing a little effing gratitude EP, Harvey, Henry Gibson?
I'll be happy to shoot you in the foot, and you can thank me for the cool body mod.


I thought it was the ridiculous policy discrimination in favor of 2-carbon alcohol vs. 1-carbon alcohol which justified derision (as well as the implicit claim that alcohol fuel can eliminate our petroleum supply problems)

Er, I have NEVER suggested alcohol would "eliminate" petro. Don't know anybody that does. It can be an excellent renewable fuel to assist extended range vehicle transition to BEV.

And since you're such a single carbon enthusiast lets hear your way of dealing with methanol's 38% LESS available energy and FOUR TIMES TOXICITY. So toxic merely breathing a small amount of vapour can cause blindness. That'll work great at the local Exxon station. (USDOT) Gack!

Range Fuels intends to use the MeOH for industrial purposes. And the scaling of any new liquid fuel process is bound to be expensive and fraught with start up problems. This is what the green dweebs are shrieking to have - cellulosic alcohol. Range is still dedicated to making ethanol from wood waste and THAT IS good.

Gratitude is obviously an alien concept to whoever you are EP. But I would happily return the favor with a shot to the head. You can thank me in advance.


Clearly people in the Administration believe there is a future in cellulosic ethanol:

If not from Range, then from another startup and process. These projects are GIFTS, even to green ingrates such as EP.


People in the administration certainly believe there are votes in cellulosic ethanol. The support is coming at least in part from Big Ag, because Cellulosic Is Coming Real Soon Now is the only thing that keeps the public from demanding that their subsidies be cut off to help the deficit.

And you keep mouthing off about "gratitude". Those people have been paid, usually far more than what their product was worth. They should be grateful to me, not vice versa.


Avoiding issues such as toxicity demonstrates a prideful obsession to be "right" rather than knowledgeable.

Clearly humility is also lacking in your character. Unfortunate. Because you could be more of an asset long term, and occasionally, even poetic.


If you think the environmental toxicity of methanol compares to gasoline, you're deluded (bacteria eat it up). If you think people in their right minds are going to breathe enough of either to do harm, you're crazy. There are trace amounts of methanol in all kinds of foods, and the body is evolved to handle it.


We are talking about a liquid fuel to be pumped at tens of thousands of gas stations. Methanol is 4X MORE toxic to humans EP (if you care) than gasoline. Merely spilling it on your hands can cause poisoning.

Making this alcohol a general liquid fuel will meet heavy resistance from health sectors.

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