The “What Happened to the Methanol Economy?” Question

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George Andrew Olah, 1994 winner of Nobel Prize for Chemistry and proponent of the methanol economy.

Methanol was once a potential replacement for fossil fuels. Now it seems to have been relegated to the back shelves at the fuel library.

Curious, I went digging to learn a bit more about the fuel choices we use to motor us from one place to the next. What I really wanted to learn was how long do we stay stuck with plain old gasoline, that ages-old petroleum standard nobody can leave in the past, where it belongs. Certainly, better products have emerged in the service station library, alternatives that are greener and far healthier for the atmosphere.

I’ve written plenty about methane (CH4), the gas accompanying the organic waste of landfills and most natural gas production — which is, sadly, 21 times more detrimental to our climate than CO2 unless it’s burned as a clean fuel, as in waste-to-energy platforms.

But now I wanted to learn about methanol — also known as wood alcohol — the fuel that propels the racing cars at the Indianapolis 500. Mind you, this is not ethanol I speak about, that dubious subsidized proposition that’s completely turned the world of corn-as-a-food upside-down, while doing little or nothing to enhance gas mileage or reduce prices at the gas pump.

No expert on automotive fuels, I visited Wikipedia for starters, wanting to see its bad side, its dirty underbelly. I came across this definition: “Methanol is an alternative fuel for internal combustion and other engines, either in combination with gasoline or directly (“heat”). It is used in racing cars and in China.”

I found Clue #1 (emphasis added by me):

In the U.S., methanol fuel has received less attention than ethanol fuel as an alternative to petroleum-based fuels, because in the 2000s particularly, the support of corn-based ethanol offered certain political advantages. 

Here was Clue #2:

Methanol may be made from fossil or renewable resources, in particular natural gas and biomass respectively.

Then came Clue #3:

California ran an experimental program from 1980 that allowed anyone to convert a gasoline vehicle to 85 percent methanol with 15 percent additives of choice. Sounded like a reasonable and responsible green initiative. Over 500 vehicles were converted to high compression and dedicated use of the 85/15 methanol and ethanol, with great results. That was the beginning of the low-compression flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs).

Of course, there had to be an end to such success. That came in 2005, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped the use of methanol after 25 years and 200 million driving miles to advocate for the expanding use of ethanol, even though methanol was considerably less expensive to produce. And the reason? I’m still looking; all I find instead is a large unanswered question:

Whatever Happened to the Methanol Economy?

In the book Beyond Oil & Gas: The Methanol Economy, the methanol economy is a suggested future economy in which methanol replaces fossil fuels as a means of energy storage, ground transportation fuel, and raw material for synthetic hydrocarbons and their products.

In the 1990s, Nobel-prize-winner George Andrew Olah advocated for the methanol economy and, in 2006, he and two co-authors (G. K. Surya Prakash and Alain Goeppert) published this book on a viable practice for the future. For as good as it might sound, little can be reported on its advancement, especially after California stopped the 85/15 methanol program for FFVs.

In a 2006 interview with MIT’s Technology Review, Olah said: “Methanol in its own right is an excellent fuel. You can mix it into gasoline — it’s a much better fuel than ethanol. And we have developed a methanol fuel cell. Methanol is a very simple chemical that can be made in a very efficient way. It is just one oxygen atom inserted into methane, the basal component of natural gas; but methanol is a liquid material which is easily stored, transported, and used.”

I’m still looking for that dirty underbelly for methanol. I haven’t yet found it, other than to learn it is highly corrosive to rubber and plastic, which are used considerably in modern car parts like hoses and fittings. I suppose copper would have to be used instead. That must be it, the Achilles Heel to this hullaballoo about methanol. Either that, or it must be that the lackluster lack of subsidies from Washington, D.C. provide some basis for methanol’s fall from grace.

Photo Credit: European Parliament

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Glenn Meyers

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

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