Monday, February 24, 2014

Is There Methanol In Your Car's Future?

Suppose that tomorrow you could get in your car, go down to the gas station, and choose between buying regular gas at $3.12 a gallon, or methanol at $2.08 a gallon.  You would know that the miles per gallon you get with methanol is only about 2/3 of what gasoline gives you.  But then you do the math:  if methanol is less than 2/3 the price of gasoline (including taxes), you're ahead mileage-wise.  And sure enough, two-thirds of $3.12 is $2.08 exactly. 

Then you think of all the nice consequences of burning methanol instead of gasoline.  Almost no carbon monoxide comes out your car's tailpipe when you burn methanol.  Other pollutants (including carcinogenic aromatic compounds that result from burning gasoline) are reduced or eliminated, and your carbon footprint per mile is decreased too, because methanol has fewer atoms of carbon per molecule than gasoline.  And every gallon of methanol you burn is a strike against the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC), because in the hypothetical methanol economy of the future, most methanol is made from U. S. fuel sources:  natural gas, coal, or even biomass sources can all be converted into methanol.  Knowing all this, you choose methanol. 

This little tale is more than a pipe dream.  The numbers are based on the hard realities of current gasoline prices at the pump and methanol prices, with taxes prorated according to the miles-per-gallon capability of the respective fuels, which would only be fair.  But a lot would have to change in both technology and the regulatory environment to bring this vision into reality.  In a recent issue of The New Atlantis, author Robert Zubrin promotes the methanol economy as a way of breaking the petroleum cartel enforced by OPEC, which he estimates make gas prices about 50% higher than otherwise.  As Zubrin points out, there are other reasons to adopt methanol besides geopolitical ones, but both technical and legal issues stand in the way of widespread adoption of methanol as a transportation fuel.

Methanol shares with ethanol a difference in chemistry between oxygen-bearing compounds such as alcohols and the purely hydrocarbon nature of gasoline.  Unlike gasoline, methanol is corrosive to the aluminum and steel commonly used in automotive fuel systems, so a new transportation infrastructure would have to be developed before methanol could be made widely available at the retail level.  Fortunately, new "flex-fuel" cars have systems made to handle methanol, ethanol, gasoline, or a mixture of fuels, so there is no longer a major technical barrier to making cars that could burn methanol.  As Zubrin points out, however, there is a huge legal barrier:  the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

For reasons that seemed good at the time, the EPA adopted rules some years ago that prohibit the burning of any transportation fuel with more than a 2.7 percent oxygen content.  Methanol is about 50% oxygen, so the EPA would have to issue a special waiver of this rule before methanol could be sold as a motor fuel.  (It has already done this for the "E85" ethanol-gasoline mixtures available in some locations.)  The EPA also prohibits after-market modifications of older cars to burn methanol, but this rule could be changed as well.

I wish the price differential were greater between methanol and gasoline, because there would then be a powerful economic incentive to lower the legal and technical barriers to adoption of methanol.  As things stand, however, some hidden economic incentives may be pointing the other way.  Zubrin traces lots of money invested in auto companies to holders of vast OPEC-controlled petroleum investments, and speculates that any major move away from gasoline-burning cars by the major U. S. automakers would be squashed by the money-bag guys.  Personally, if I find a situation that can be explained either by (a) a vast secret conspiracy or (b) ignorance and inertia, I'll go for ignorance and inertia every time. 

The main reason we don't have a methanol economy right now is that the gasoline economy we have in place is not in an immediate crisis, and so the red-alert alarm bells that it takes to get the attention of government officials and elected representatives are silent.  The last time this country got really serious about alternative fuels was back in the early 1980s, when the price of crude oil spiked at around $100 a barrel (in 2011 dollars).  That motivated a spate of energy research that faded almost as quickly as the price of oil fell.  We are almost at that same price now again, but since it's happened before and we survived, nobody seems to be very motivated to do much about it this time.

Some readers may recall President George W. Bush's call for a hydrogen economy during his 2003 state-of-the-union address.  That scheme would have had some of the advantages of the methanol economy, including less pollution and less dependence on foreign fossil fuels.  But hydrogen, which is the lightest known gas at room temperature, is devilishly hard to transport and use for transportation, simply because it must be stored under extremely high pressures or liquefied at extremely cold temperatures.  While these measures are practical for exotic applications like interplanetary rockets, they were sufficiently challenging to smother the hydrogen economy in its diapers, so to speak, even if more politicians than the President had gotten behind it, which they by and large refrained from doing.

Methanol is much more practical than hydrogen as a motor fuel, and in fact is used exclusively in many race cars, where its naturally higher octane rating is an advantage.  I think the biggest single hurdle blocking the way to a methanol-fueled transportation system is not technical and not legal.  It's a lack of leadership.  The last time I can recall that a national leader resolved to do something definite and new, and had the support of most of the nation, was right after 9/11/2001 when President Bush said we were going into Afghanistan and whip some you-know-what.  But that state of the national mind lasted about three weeks.  Then Bush himself encouraged people to go shopping and revert to business as usual, and the moment was lost.

Man does not live by bread—or gasoline—or methanol—alone.  There are more important matters than the health of the economy, but you wouldn't think so by listening to most political rhetoric nowadays.  Zubrin's motivation in calling for a methanol economy is not strictly economic or technical.  He sees OPEC as a world-class force for evil that needs to be broken up, and I agree with him.  But there are so many domestic concerns that obsess the political class nowadays that it would take another 9/11-style crisis to get their attention.  And nobody wants that.

Sources:  Robert Zubrin's article "Why We Should Break OPEC Now" appeared in the No. 40 (Fall 2013) issue of The New Atlantis, pp. 19-32.  I referred to Wikipedia articles on methanol, the methanol economy, and fuel taxes in the United States.

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