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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