Published on March 15th, 2012 | by Glenn Meyers


The “What Happened to the Methanol Economy?” Question

March 15th, 2012 by  

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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About the Author

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.

  • davidisaak

    I am neither a proponent nor opponent of methanol, but the the “dirty underbelly” of methanol is the potential for pollution of groundwater. Although methanol spills are rapidly degraded in highly aerobic environments, it persists in groundwater. Remember methanol’s close relative, MTBE, that contaminated so many aquifers in California? Methanol is far more soluble than MTBE. Here are the solubilities in mg/liter:
    Gasoline: 71
    MTBE: 50,000
    Methanol: Infinite
    Everything has side effects. Methanol is no exception.
    Also, if it is made from natural gas (most of it is, and they are building millions of tonnes of new capacity in the US right now), it is extraordinarily energy-inefficient. With a product like LNG, about 93% of the energy in the gas feedstock ends up in the LNG. With methanol, only about 55% of the energy in the gas ends up in the methanol.
    That shouldn’t be too surprising. Oxygen is being added to a methane molecule; methanol is methane that has been partially ‘burned.’

  • Pingback: Say No to Gasoline: Fuel Freedom’s Methanol Cars to Run in Rescheduled Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb - CleanTechnica()

  • Bob_Wallace

    Methane hydrate extraction is a terrible idea. Even more sequestered carbon released into the atmosphere.

    It’s not a solution. It’s a continuation of the problem.

  • Good question… I am currently reading Dr. Robert Zubrins book “Energy Victory” and methanol sounds pretty awesome.

  • AB

    FYI, the person on the picture is not George Olah, but Vittorio Prodi, Italian Member of the Europen Parliament…

  • Matt

    Most of the items listed in that wikipedia entry are not substantive issues and are often qualified. Low energy density is overcome by higher octane and more efficient combustion, meaning better utilization than gasoline. All liquid fuels for transportation are toxic, and should not be consumed. RVP questions have been identified and addressed (similar to ethanol). Corrosion is not an issue, as is demonstrated by vehicles on the road everyday running on methanol.

  • Jolah

    Who is that man in the picture? It certainly is Not George Olah

  • Imawhiz

    The comments on this article are as informative as the article itself. Use of methanol as a hydrogen carrier for fuel cell powered vehicles makes all kinds of sense. Production of methanol from sources other than coal gives methanol a positive attribute. Leave the coal in the ground (and all the toxic Mercury with it). The auto industry for decades has had a problem with methanol dissolving rubber and some plastic gaskets and seals. Surely some organic chemist can overcome that problem with a better plastic.

    • Matt

      There is no mystery to the types of metals and plastics that can be used. Nitrile plastics (buna-N, etc) are all perfectly viable and cost the same as rubbers and sealants used today. Ford and GM both produced methanol vehicles in the 1990’s that were methanol compatible and would also be capabel of running on ethanol, butanol and other higher alcohols – so a truly flexible vehicle where fuels could compete.

      • Imawhiz

        Thanks for the quick Chemistry lesson.  As I said in my earlier post, the comments are at least as informative as the article itself.

        From: Disqus
        Sent: Monday, March 19, 2012 9:13 AM
        Subject: [im-cleantechnica] Re: The “What Happened to the Methanol Economy?” Question

        Disqus generic email template

        Matt (unregistered) wrote, in response to Imawhiz:
        There is no mystery to the types of metals and plastics that can be used. Nitrile plastics (buna-N, etc) are all perfectly viable and cost the same as rubbers and sealants used today. Ford and GM both produced methanol vehicles in the 1990’s that were methanol compatible and would also be capabel of running on ethanol, butanol and other higher alcohols – so a truly flexible vehicle where fuels could compete. Link to comment

  • Glenn Meyers

    Thanks for the links

  • Glenn Meyers

    Thanks for the info – I will look -Glenn

  • Moses Lonn

    When you figure out whatever happened to the methanol economy, start looking into whatever happened to thorium fission for generating cheap electricity in a reasonably safe, environmentally friendly way. I think you will find at the root of it all are large industrial enterprises – Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Ag – that actively discourage the development and adoption of competitive energy resources. The captains of energy are aided and abetted by an inherently corrupt national ‘political process’ (that would be Congress) that is bought and paid for through the financial mechanism that is known as the ‘election process.’

    • Hmm, why does that sound familiar….

      • Glenn Meyers

        way too familiar, indeed

  • Drewes Hielema

    As everyone knows, methanol is something not fitting in the core business of the fossil fuel producers. Oil companies are continually ignoring even shunning methanol.
    In the Netherlands, where we have (had) two (2) lines of methanol production units, each producing 450.000 tons/a. It was hard fighting to overcome the demolition of the units, because of interference of the fossil fuel producers.

    Methanol is also the best storage of HYDROGEN.
    1 M3 of Methanol at ambient pressure and temperature contains 1.660 Nm3 of hydrogen(H2) compared to liquid hydrogen

    1 M3 of liquid hydrogen (LH2) at -253°C contains 788 Nm3 of hydrogen (H2)

    Source: WPI-080905 (Westerink Procédé Industriël)

    Soldesa Hydrogen B.V.,
    Drewes E. Hielema

    • Glenn Meyers

      Thanks for this information. I suspect fossil fuel producers don’t approve of the way methanol affects their price/revenue paradigm.

  • Glenn Meyers

    I look forward to hearing comments from methanol experts! GRM

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