Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Betting on Methanol

The U. S. dependence on foreign oil imports is a little like what Mark Twain said about the weather: everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. My metaphorical hat is off to entrepreneur and author Robert Zubrin, who, in a small way, is trying to do something about it. Zubrin has offered to wager up to $100,000 (presumably his own money) that he can make his recent-model Chevy Cobalt run on methanol with better fuel economy than it gets with gasoline.

Why methanol? In a previous column in National Review, Zubrin explained some of its advantages compared to gasoline and even ethanol. Methanol (also known as wood alcohol) has the chemical formula CH3OH. It can be produced at low cost (Zubrin says the going price is currently $1.28 per gallon) from a wide variety of carbon-containing materials: oil, coal, natural gas, and almost any biomass material, even wood (the name comes from an early production method involving the destructive distillation of wood). The chemistry for producing methanol is fairly straightforward, in contrast to ethanol, which is most easily obtained from sugar-containing foodstuffs (e. g. corn) used in a fermenting process. Although most cars cannot burn pure methanol because it attacks certain kinds of rubber seals and has different combustion characteristics than gasoline, many recent models have fuel lines and software that will allow the use of methanol and other flexfuels with only minor modifications. I am sure Zubrin, a smart engineer, has either done this or knows people who have, and so is fairly sure to win his bets.

So what if he does show that his Cobalt can get 24 mpg on methanol? Will he have done anything more than pulled a publicity stunt profitable to himself? His wider goal is to make a point about the inertia of our present transportation fuel system and how it could be radically improved.

Increasingly, newer technology is advancing beyond the shell-like fossilized regulatory and infrastructure environment in which earlier technology developed, and the environment often blocks adoption of the new technology. As Zubrin points out, adapting a car of today to a different kind of fuel is a much simpler matter than it was thirty years ago, when one would have to do extensive mechanical modifications to the carburetor, valve lifters, and other parts, costing many thousands of dollars to complete. But the nation’s fuel infrastructure and regulatory environment developed around such facts. Now that the facts have changed, we are stuck with a distribution and legal system based on the assumption that cars will run on gasoline or diesel fuel forever, amen. If by some miracle, methanol refining plants running on natural gas or coal sprang up all over the country and methanol filling stations were built to service flexfuel cars, the road tax system of every state would be severely challenged, because most states receive revenues based on a fixed charge per gallon of gasoline sold. If gasoline sales plummet, so do road tax revenues.

Of course, the one thing lawmakers are still pretty good at is passing new tax laws, so this problem would be addressed promptly if methanol became a significant part of the transportation-fuel market. The best thing about such a development from Zubrin’s point of view is that unlike petroleum, the U. S. has abundant coal and increasing amounts of natural gas reserves. And methanol can be made from either coal or natural gas.

A believer in the free market, Zubrin does not call for a methanol subsidy, which like the current Federal law mandating ethanol in gasoline would further distort the market and lead to unexpected negative consequences. He simply wants most new cars to be flexfuel-capable in fact as well as in theory, and feels if this happens, the market will do the rest. If your car could burn either gasoline or methanol, and you drove by two filling stations, one with gasoline at $3.55 a gallon and one with methanol at a fuel-economy-equivalent price of $2 a gallon, which would you buy? Such no-brainers are how the market works, and pretty soon gasoline marketers would find they have a price ceiling to contend with.

We have seen calls for major shifts in the nation’s transportation-fuel infrastructure before. Who remembers President George W. Bush’s call for a hydrogen-based economy in twenty years? As attractive as it might have been politically, hydrogen is a relatively poor choice for a transportation fuel. To carry around enough hydrogen to take you more than a few miles, you need extremely high-pressure tanks to contain the compressed gas. The problem is even worse than it is with natural-gas-fueled vehicles, which have made very limited inroads in mostly municipal fleets where a city can build its own supply station. Methanol, although not quite as easy to handle as gasoline, is a lot better in this regard, because its energy density is higher than hydrogen or other fuel gases. Another advantage of methanol compared to gasoline is its biodegradable characteristics. It breaks down into carbon dioxide and water in a few days if released into the environment, unlike gasoline, some of whose toxic components can persist for years in the ground.

I wish Zubrin the best of luck in his wagers. He’s willing to break down his $100,000 bet into as many as ten $10K pieces. If I had that kind of money lying around, I would be tempted to take him up on it. Not because I think he’ll lose, but because it would be fun to participate in a publicity stunt that may turn out to be a prophetic event.

Sources: Zubrin has published two articles recently on methanol as a transportation fuel, both in the online edition of National Review. The July 27 article can be found at http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/272685/tripling-america-s-fuel-production-robert-zubrin?page=1 and the one in which he issues his betting challenge appeared on Aug. 2 at http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/273285/fuel-efficiency-bet-robert-zubrin.

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