Carrying the Torch for Methanol


For those fed up with the stark reality of high gas prices, the idea of powering a car on fuel made from cheap, abundantly available and completely renewable sources like municipal garbage or even seaweed must seem a pipedream.

But according to Frank Markus, technical director for Detroit-based Motor Trend magazine, the notion of vehicles someday being fired by methanol isn’t that farfetched.

Markus, Motor Trend’s alternative fuels expert, first became interested in exploring methanol as an alternative fuel when he happened upon a Lotus show car on display at the Geneva Auto Show. The vehicle was capable of running on any of three different fuels: gasoline, ethanol and methanol made from carbon dioxide.

But Lotus wasn’t the first car built to run on methanol.

The Arlington, Va.-based Methanol Institute, a 19-year-old trade association that represents the methanol industry, reports that in the 1980s and ‘90s, almost 20,000 flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on methanol were produced by the world’s automakers. Among them was Ford Motor Company’s 1997 Ford Taurus Flexible-Fuel Vehicle (FFV), which ran on any combination of gasoline and methanol and sold for $345 less than its gasoline-fueled counterparts. Since 1965, methanol has been the only racing fuel used by the Indianapolis 500. It is also favored to power go-carts and monster trucks.

“This is the simplest alcohol that exists,” Markus says, noting methanol can be made from anything containing carbon, including carbon dioxide and garbage. What’s more, transitioning vehicles to methanol would really be comparatively simple, he says, requiring no revolutionary rethinking of current gasoline vehicles and how they are refueled. While methanol does have a number of downsides, and hence, detractors, what obstacles the fuel presents aren’t insurmountable, Markus says.

For starters, methanol is poisonous, but then so is the gasoline motorists have used for a century. And while some detractors say methanol’s invisible flame is another safety hazard, Markus responds the reason the flame is invisible is because methanol burns with only 11 percent of the radiated heat of gasoline. For that reason, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates deaths, injuries and property damage caused by car fires would drop by as much as 90 percent if methanol replaced gasoline, he says.

Another problem is that pure methanol doesn’t do well in temperatures below freezing. But mixing methanol with gas in an 85:15 ratio (as is currently done with corn-based ethanol) generally nixes that problem, rendering the fuel acceptable for use under most environmental conditions.

In addition, methanol is caustic, meaning that rubber components can’t be used in fuel systems of cars that consume it. It can also be corrosive to valve seats, spark plugs and other parts. “There are materials issues, but they’re very simple compared with trying to make cars run on hydrogen, which involves storage under very high pressure, the loss of energy when it’s liquefied and the evaporation of liquid hydrogen over a period of time,” Markus says.

Consider, too, the flat-out benefits methanol offers. “Liquid at room temperature, it pours, stores and travels almost as easily as gasoline,” Markus wrote in his August 2008 Motor Trend article on methanol. It can be stored in tanks and run through lines, and behaves more like gasoline than many other prospective fuels, and certainly more than hydrogen. There are even some fuel cells that can be powered by methanol, although they’re not yet well suited to automobiles.

Nor is methanol a fuel that’s going to become scarce any time soon. According to the Methanol Institute, methanol can be produced from any carbon-based source. That includes natural gas, coal, municipal wastes, landfill gases, wood waste and seaweed.

Jamie Turner of Lotus Engineering has recommended a schedule that could help make methanol an accepted fuel within just more than two decades.

The first step on the timeline would be a mandated flex-fuel capability by 2012 on all spark-ignition vehicles, which Turner believes would spur a gradual increase in demand and lead to non-food-based alcohol fuels becoming extensively available by 2020.

“Then with careful legislative inducements aimed at the energy sector, a further transition would be made to CO2-neutral methanol production, so that by 2030 the transportation sector could exit the climate-change debate altogether,” Markus writes.

A move to hydrogen fuels would also work toward that goal, but the complexity involved in converting to a hydrogen infrastructure would cost around a staggering $1 trillion.

That leaves one more question to ponder. If methanol is such a viable idea, why couldn’t we see it fueling our vehicles in the real world much earlier than 2030?

“There’s so much political wrangling in the energy sector that I wouldn’t bet on its prospects,” Markus says. “Politics is always so much a part of energy policy that the most logical, best solution doesn’t always win. I wouldn’t be surprised if the future held not one magic fuel, but many alternatives.”