For any alternative to gasoline or diesel to be considered a reliable transportation fuel, four factors need to be addressed. The alternative fuel must: (1) have a large energy resource base; (2) a positive impact on the economy; (3) be cleaner and greener; and (4) be acceptable to the consumer. Let’s look at the methanol factors with this checklist.
Methanol Resource Base is Diverse
In 2009, over 42 million metric tons of methanol was consumed around the globe, or 14 billion gallons, which is roughly equivalent to global ethanol fuel demand. Global methanol production capacity is growing even faster than demand, and is expected to reach over 85 million metric tons by 2012 — that’s over 28 billion gallons. Based on forecasts, there will be 34 million tons of excess production capacity around the world, enough to produce 11 billion gallons of methanol per year. One of the distinct advantages of employing methanol as a sustainable source of fuel is the diverse array of feedstocks from which this simple alcohol can be produced. Besides industrial production from natural gas and coal, methanol can be made from anything that is, or ever was, a plant. Forest thinnings, landfill gas, trash, pulp mill black liquor, agricultural waste and even CO2 pollution – all can be converted into methanol. In the U.S., if we took just under 5 percent of the natural gas currently produced domestically, and used that gas to make methanol, we could produce 10 billion gallons of the clean energy fuel. The same is true for coal and biomass. Using just 5 percent of the domestic coal mined or 5 percent of the available waste biomass, could each provide enough feedstock to produce 10 billion gallons of methanol. So by using less than 5 percent of our current production of natural gas, coal and biomass, we could supply 30 billion gallons of methanol per year.
Methanol Fuel is a Bargain, Just Ask China
When compared to gasoline on an energy equivalent basis – as methanol contains less BTUs per gallon than regular gasoline – M-85 (a blend of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline) still offers the best value at today’s pump prices. Methanol pricing is currently high at about $1.10 per gallon as a commodity, meaning the current pump price for M-85 would be just $1.65 per gallon including all applicable taxes, distribution costs and retail mark-up. On a gasoline equivalent basis, the price of methanol delivered to the consumer would be $2.73 per gallon. According to AAA, the average pump price for regular gasoline is currently $2.98 per gallon (AAA Daily Fuel Gauge, 12/21/2010), while the energy adjusted price for E-85, stands at $3.35 per gallon.
Methanol now represents over 7 percent of China’s transportation fuel pool, with as much as 7 million metric tons or 2.3 billion gallons of methanol expected to be sold at the fuel pump in 2010. Most methanol production in China is based on coal gasification. In a country where the retail price of gasoline is controlled by the central government, methanol’s lower wholesale price compared with gasoline is a real incentive for fuel blending. Chinese consumers in more than 14 provinces pump M-15 (a blend of 15 percent methanol and 85 percent gasoline) in their cars. While taxi, bus and truck fleets run on M-85 and even neat methanol (M-100). The Chinese recognize a bargain when the see one.
Methanol Going Green
In Soperton, Georgia, Range Fuels is harnessing biomass and wood waste to convert into biomethanol. In Iceland, two separate plants are utilizing CO2 pollution from aluminum plants, combined with hydrogen produced using geothermal energy, to make renewable methanol for vehicles and trucks on the island nation. In Kingsport, Tennessee – and to a much greater scale throughout China – coal is converted into methanol fuel through gasification, a much cleaner approach than traditional coal-to-liquids technology. In Sweden, Chemrec is creating methanol and dimethyl ether from the black liquor, which is a waste product of pulp mills. These innovative approaches mostly rely on a proven and reliable technology called gasification to extract the energy contained in all these feedstocks – but a number of different processes have created cost-competitive approaches to the production of methanol from a number of feedstocks.
Methanol Has No Technical Hurdles
From the mid-1980s to the late-1990s, methanol flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs), capable of running on any combination of methanol (up to M-85) and gasoline in the same tank were sold in the U.S. Methanol FFVs on the road peaked in 1997 at just over 21,000 with approximately 15,000 of these in California, which also had over 100 methanol refueling stations. Hundreds of transit and school buses were operated during this time period using M-100. From this experience, we know that there are no technical hurdles to the use of methanol fuels. Further, the use of methanol and ethanol fuels offer the greatest value to consumers of any alternative fuel/vehicle technology, with the incremental cost to provide flexible fuel capability to a new car just $50-$150, and the cost to install a methanol fueling pump is $62,000 or less.
A truly flexible fuel vehicle would be “A-85” or “GEM” capable, able to run on gasoline, ethanol (E-85) or methanol (M-85) in any combination. By creating a car capable of running on M-85 – which is slightly more corrosive than ethanol – a car would then be materially compatible to run on any alcohol based fuel, including ethanol, methanol, biobutanol and others. A GEM or alcohol compatible FFV would offer significant benefits in fuel diversity, price competition and consumer choice. The “ideal” car of the future, may well be a plug-in battery electric car with alcohol flexible fuel capability. In the U.S. Congress, the Open Fuel Standard Act would ensure the widespread adoption of alcohol-fuel compatible FFVs by requiring automakers to introduce GEM FFVs – 50 percent of all new cars by 2012 and 80 percent by 2015. With no cost to the government or taxpayers, this legislation would require automakers to produce cars that are capable of running on many different types of fuels from reliable technology already proven through millions of miles of demonstration.
By Gregory Dolan, Executive Director – Americas/Europe, Methanol Institute