The Next New Fuel You've Never Heard Of: Methanol, In China

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Structure of methanol. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Structure of methanol. Image: Wikimedia Commons

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You'll already be familiar with ethanol-powered cars, but what about methanol?

Both are alcohols, but methanol is even simpler than ethanol, containing only one carbon atom. It has less energy content than ethanol, and only half that of gasoline, but it's easier to produce.

The fuel is now undergoing trials to determine its viability. In particular, to study the effect blends of methanol have on typical engine components, rubber and plastic items in particular which methanol can potentially dissolve.

Wards Auto reports that the testing process, by materials group Freudenberg-NOK, will replicate that originally done with ethanol. Components are bathed for six weeks and inspected afterwards to look for any changes that could affect long-term performance.

The research has been spurred on by China's announcement that it plans to begin a trial run of methanol-powered cars.

The idea isn't just to ensure that components will work in Chinese vehicles though--the research will be used to develop components that can be used anywhere in the world, whether cars run on ethanol, methanol, or blends of gasoline good or poor. That reduces the cost for consumers.

These days, methanol is produced from methane gas and steam, rather than the distillation of wood that led to its colloquial nickname, wood alcohol. Though not common as an exclusive fuel in road transport, methanol is blended in small quantities with gasoline in some markets, and it's also used in several motorsport series, including Champcar.

Though toxic, methanol has several environmental advantages. It's biodegradable in only a matter of days, and though flammable, it can be extinguished with water--unlike gasoline--and it's less volatile.

Disadvantages? The low energy content, half that of gasoline and only two thirds that of ethanol, which means currently, the energy used to produce it is greater than the energy you can get from it--similar to hydrogen.

Will Chinese cars soon be roaring around on methanol? That's what the trial should determine. In the meantime, its limited energy capacity--and limited availability--will limit its use in the U.S. market.


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Comments (7)
  1. What's the efficiency of methane -> methanol? If it's high, would this a reasonable way to get natural gas into liquid fuel form? Or are people worried about spills from gas stations into the water supply?

  2. It is quite efficient, and was identified by MIT as the most cost-effective way to integrate natural gas into the transportation pool.

    And there is no threat from potential spills at gas stations. Methanol is biodegradable, naturally occuring, and modeling shows that it breaks down rapidly in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions - meaning no threat to drinking water.

  3. You may be interested to learn that the US actually pioneered methanol fuels (the first FFV's in the world were made for methanol, and could actually run on both alcohols easily). The Chinese demonstrations are less about determining viability, but actually about establishing infrastructure base for the country. They are leaps and bounds ahead of us on this as they are building an infrastructure that promotes renewables and biofuels, while the US is staying wed to corn ethanol, which is costly and not meeting our goals of reduced consumption.

  4. Thanks for the info Matt, interesting stuff!

  5. The Chinese should realise that research on methanol has already been done by BP and other oil companies. BP had an extensive research project, back in the 1980's. They had a fleet of different makes of cars and tested each one for several thousand miles. Then, they removed the engines and took them apart to see what effect the methanol and additives had on internal parts. Chlorine was a big problem, but BP managed to remove the chlorine and to eliminate other corrosive effects of methanol, using propritary additives.. Maybe China should be talking to BP ?

  6. *** Standard Oil-Ohio, started the research and it was continued by BP, when they assumed control of SOHIO in 1987

  7. Good article but I have to disagree on the energy balance for making methanol from coal, natural gas or biomass. It is not more energy intensive and while the drop in energy is 50%, I only get 35-40% worse fuel mileage while driving on it. At current market prices, that's 40% cheaper to drive per mile. Shame the EPA won't allow us to implement it as a fuel. Max allowed is a 5% mixture [Octamix received a waiver]. Any E85 flex fuel vehicle can run on a mix of up to M70 with minimal part upgrades (rubber compliance issues).

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