The CO2 Advantage of Methanol

Friday, December 27, 2013

Question: If we had a sizable number of cars on our roads burning methanol rather than gasoline, would it put less CO2 into the atmosphere? If so, how much less? We haven't yet seen any studies that directly answer the question, but we've found enough clues to make the answer quite clear.

Let's start with the creation of the fuel. Refining gasoline produces considerable CO2 emissions. To produce one gallon of gasoline puts 2.45 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. (Source)

Methanol is a little more difficult to determine because there are many ways to create methanol, and each method creates different amounts of CO2. But all the methods produce less CO2 than refining gasoline. Fuel Freedom writes:

"Studies indicate that methanol produced from natural gas is somewhat less greenhouse gas intensive than gasoline produced from conventional oil, and substantially better than high carbon, non-conventional gasoline.

"Oil refining impacts air and water quality, produces toxic solids and sludge, and is the most energy intensive industry in the U.S. On the other hand, methanol produced from natural gas requires only a simple gasification process that avoids the toxic byproducts of oil refining." (Source)

That's methanol from natural gas. In a technical paper entitled, Large Scale Methanol Production from Natural Gas, the authors say it makes the process more productive to add CO2 to the syngas. Most methanol is created by heating up natural gas until the molecules separate, producing "synthesis gas" or "syngas." The authors of the technical paper write: "The addition of CO2 permits optimization of the synthesis gas composition for methanol production. CO2 constitutes a less expensive feedstock, and CO2 emissions to the environment are reduced. The application of CO2 reforming results in a very energy efficient plant. The energy consumption is 5-10% less than that of a conventional plant." (Source)

That was technical jargon, but what they're saying is that you get more methanol from the same amount of natural gas if you add CO2 to it — and it's less expensive to make because CO2 is cheap. It's an industrial waste.

But some new technologies are even better. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Nobel laureate George Olah explains how he and Surya Prakash created a breakthrough that won them a million dollars for their innovations:

"Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol — a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel — can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

"At laboratories such as the University of Southern California's Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and 'sequestering' carbon dioxide...this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships." (Source)

Olah and Prakash are not the only ones working on using CO2 to produce methanol. In Iceland, the company Carbon Recycling International captures CO2 produced by industrial processes and makes renewable methanol using geothermal energy. Their CEO, K.C. Tran, says, "We often describe our technology as liquid electricity because we store the electricity in the form of liquid, for consumption in today's internal combustion engine based cars. It is similar to storing electricity in a battery. We capture CO2 and turn it into renewable methanol for gasoline blending in the US and EU." (Source)

Describing the Icelandic company's commercial scale plant, Wikipedia says, "Initially the major source will be the CO2 rich flue gases of fossil-fuel-burning power plants or exhaust from cement and other factories. In the longer range however, considering diminishing fossil fuel resources and the effect of their utilization on earth's atmosphere, even the low concentration of atmospheric CO2 itself could be captured and recycled via methanol, thus supplementing nature’s own photosynthetic cycle. Efficient new absorbents to capture atmospheric CO2 are being developed, mimicking plants' ability." So methanol could be made directly from CO2 in the air.

"Methanol may be viewed as a compact way of storing hydrogen," says Wikipedia. "Methanol has a high octane rating, making it a suitable gasoline substitute. It has a higher flame speed than gasoline, leading to higher efficiency..." (Source)

A method for creating methanol using CO2 and sunlight, developed at the University of Texas at Arlington, uses very little electrical power and can be "scaled up to an industrial scale to allow some of the CO2 emitted from electrical power plants to be captured and converted into" methanol. This would make electric cars even greener because the CO2 generated for electricity is captured and used. (Source)

Researchers are innovating other ways to convert CO2 into methanol using very little energy. A team led by Professor Frédéric-Georges Fontaine at Université Laval has accomplished a very efficient method. As Science Daily puts it, "the results have been spectacular." They're now working on ways to make it profitable. (Source)

In an article in Forbes, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, Carlo Rubbia, says natural gas has the most promise as an abundant, clean fuel that can help reduce global warming. He said one of our most important goals should be to convert the transportation sector from gasoline to methanol. "Natural gas can be integrated into human society more quickly and easily than nuclear, solar or wind," Rubbia said, "and because of global warming, speed is of the essence."

"For transportation, he suggests producing methanol liquid by recombining hydrogen with CO2 that has been removed from the atmosphere. Cars burning methanol would still produce CO2 emissions, but as long as the fuel is made with captured CO2 they would not increase existing CO2 levels.

"Because methanol can be handled like ethanol or gasoline is now, society could avoid several of the obstacles it would face if it tried to convert transportation to hydrogen, including the need for new storage and transportation infrastructure and the need to switch from internal combustion engines to electricity-producing fuel cells." (Source)

Another important consideration about the CO2 impact of methanol made from natural gas is that flaring natural gas (burning it just to get rid of it) now produces a huge amount of CO2 without any benefit whatsoever only because methanol is not allowed to compete with gasoline at the pump. If that natural gas was converted to methanol and burned as a fuel instead of flaring it, the methanol could displace billions of gallons of a much more polluting fuel (gasoline) that is now being burned for transportation. The methanol which is being flared would be used instead to propel cars down the road and billions of gallons of gasoline now being burned for transportation fuel would not have to be burned, considerably reducing total CO2 emissions. 

A report by GE stated: "Gas flaring [in America] emits 400 million metric tons of CO2 annually, the same as 77 million automobiles, without producing useful heat or electricity. Worldwide, billions of cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas are wasted annually, typically as a by-product of oil extraction." (Source)

A report by Ceres says, "At current market rates, oil is approximately 30 times more valuable than natural gas. As a result, producers have chosen to flare much of the gas they produce, rather than invest in the infrastructure necessary to collect, process and market it...

"The practice of natural gas flaring has generated significant public attention after recent NASA satellite images revealed that North Dakota’s gas flares can be seen from space, burning nearly as brightly as the city lights of Minneapolis and Chicago." (Source)

In a New York Times article by Clifford Krauss, he writes, "With cheap (natural) gas bubbling to the top with expensive oil, the companies do not have an economic incentive to build the necessary gas pipelines, so they flare the excess gas instead.

"Flaring is environmentally less harmful than releasing raw natural gas into the atmosphere, but the flared gas still spews climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere." (Source)

Reuters reports: "The World Bank estimates that the flaring of gas adds some 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in annual emissions, almost the same as France puts into the atmosphere each year or the equivalent to the yearly emissions from around 70 million cars." (Source)

With the passing of the Open Fuel Standard, we would soon have a large percentage of cars on the road capable of burning ethanol and methanol as well as gasoline, and there would be a profit-incentive for waste-into-fuel plants to spring up in every town and city, further cutting the greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than municipal waste being dumped into a landfill where it leaks tremendous amounts of methane into the atmosphere — a greenhouse gas far worse than CO2most of the waste could be turned into fuel, as one facility is now doing in Vero Beach, Florida. And turning the trash into fuel reduces the bulk going into landfills by 90%. (Source)

The production of methanol is one factor in its CO2 emissions, and it easily wins that competition with gasoline because methanol production creates substantially less CO2 than refining oil into gasoline. The other factor, of course, is burning the fuel in vehicles. This is a more straightforward thing to measure. Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Energy and an accomplished engineer, discovered during his methanol experiment that methanol produces less CO2 when burned than gasoline. "Carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 35 percent," he writes. In a recent paper of his, he graphs the results of testing M100 (pure methanol), M60 (sixty percent methanol, forty percent gasoline), and E10 (normal gasoline, containing ten percent ethanol). Here are the results:

Read more about it here. So using methanol for fuel instead of gasoline would lower CO2 emissions from vehicles by 35%. Methanol is a high-octane, clean-burning fuel and gasoline should have to compete with it in a free market. This could happen quickly. It was not difficult for Zubrin to adjust his regular gasoline-only car to be able to burn methanol. The only part he had to replace was a fuel pump seal that cost him 41 cents. Methanol could very well be the silver bullet everyone has been searching for. At the very least, it could cut CO2 emissions from our existing cars immediately while new technologies like electric cars have a chance to gain a larger share of the market. A few relevant points about methanol from Wikipedia:

"Methanol is in fact toxic and eventually lethal when ingested in larger amounts. But so are most motor fuels, including gasoline and diesel fuel. Gasoline also contains many compounds known to be carcinogenic (e.g. benzene). Methanol is not a carcinogen, nor does it contain any carcinogens.

"Compared to gasoline, however, methanol is much safer. It is more difficult to ignite and releases less heat when it burns. Methanol fires can be extinguished with plain water, whereas gasoline floats on water and continues to burn. The EPA has estimated that switching fuels from gasoline to methanol would reduce the incidence of fuel related fires by 90%.

"An accidental release of methanol in the environment would cause much less damage than a comparable gasoline or crude oil spill. Unlike these fuels, methanol, being totally soluble in water, would be rapidly diluted to a concentration low enough for microorganisms to start biodegradation. Methanol is in fact used for denitrification in water treatment plant as a nutrient for bacteria." (Source)

Fuel Freedom has this to say about the possibility of methanol as a transportation fuel:

"Development of methanol as a fuel source has suffered from a lack of physical and legal infrastructure. Steps that could make methanol more viable as an alternative fuel include:

1. Passage of the Open Fuel Standard that would mandate that new cars sold in the U.S. support multiple fuels, not just gasoline;
2. Government protocols for the conversion of existing cars to flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on high concentrations of methanol and the installation of flex-fuel pumps at gas stations so consumers can choose between competing fuels and blends;
3. Construction and streamlined permitting for new plants, initially to convert natural gas and coal to methanol, and later to convert more sustainable feed stocks such as biomass. Because methanol is so easily produced, facilities could be small and decentralized, located near to gasoline stations." (Source)

If you would like to see a cleaner, safer, cheaper alternative to gasoline at the pump — a fuel that releases less CO2 into the atmosphere — start here: First Things First.

Author: Adam Khan, the co-founder of and co-author of the book, Fill Your Tank With Freedom. 


Top Seven Myths About the Open Fuel Standard

Thursday, December 26, 2013

MYTH #1: The bill favors one fuel over others. The Open Fuel Standard allows fuels to compete with each other by enabling regular gasoline-only cars to burn not only gasoline, but methanol and ethanol too. It would allow us choice at the pump. It is an inexpensive improvement to the car, and methanol and ethanol can be made from a huge variety of feedstocks. The bill doesn't favor any of them.

MYTH #2: It will make food more expensive and lead to food shortages. The largest influence on rising food prices for the last fifty years has been rising oil prices. Ethanol production has had a miniscule effect on food prices. And the Open Fuel Standard would make cars capable of burning methanol as well, which can be made inexpensively from municipal waste, natural gas, coal, etc. These, of course, would not raise food prices — they would lower prices as transportation fuel becomes less expensive.

MYTH #3: The bill will cost taxpayers. The bill itself will cost taxpayers nothing, and it subsidizes nothing. Flex fuel cars are sold at the same price as gasoline-only cars. By allowing other fuels to compete with gasoline, the price for fuel will come down, saving drivers money. Right now, both ethanol and methanol could be sold for far less than gasoline, and that is in the absence of a large market and the economy of scale. And both can both be made from material abundant within the United States, creating millions of jobs, strengthening the American economy and reducing our trade deficit.

MYTH #4: It will interfere with a free market. Just the opposite is true. The fuel market is not free today. The Open Fuel Standard would create a free market. Oil enjoys a virtual monopoly over the transportation fuel market, held in place with political contributions, influence over automakers (because oil interests invest in car manufacturing companies), blocking access to alternatives at fuel stations, funding propaganda against competitive fuels, and lobbying. Saudi Arabia alone has a hundred full-time lobbyists in Washington, D.C. OPEC’s price-fixing cartel is illegal, but international bodies are outside the reach of our judicial system. The Open Fuel Standard is a way to get around these barriers to a free market.

MYTH #5: We can solve our problems by drilling more American oil. We cannot end oil’s monopoly by drilling more oil. We cannot end OPEC’s ability to manipulate world oil prices by drilling more oil. American oil companies sell their oil at the world’s going oil price, which is set by OPEC. Many new sources of oil have been discovered over the years. OPEC responds by cutting their production to keep oil prices high. They collectively produce over 40 percent of the world’s annual oil production, which is enough to make a small drop in their output significantly raise the price per barrel of oil worldwide. One country alone cannot control world oil prices. That’s why Saudi Arabia joined together with the eleven other oil producing nations of OPEC.

MYTH #6: We can solve our problems by using less oil. When we use less oil, there should theoretically be more oil available on the world market, which should lower world oil prices, right? Unfortunately, when this has happened, OPEC responded by cutting its production to keep oil prices high. The demand for oil is so high (and continually growing) that OPEC doesn’t have to cut their production very much to raise prices.

MYTH #7: Alcohol fuels are bad for car engines. Alcohol dries out rubber, and cars used to have rubber fuel lines. Without additives, gasoline is low in octane, so lead was added for seventy years. In 1987 lead was made illegal, and ethanol replaced it as an octane booster, so automakers began using ethanol-compatible fuel lines. Brazil has been using ethanol in their cars for decades (cars made by Ford, GM, Toyota, etc.), and they’ve found that car engines burning ethanol typically last as much as three times longer, for two reasons. First, ethanol burns much cleaner and leaves no carbon deposits when it burns. Alcohol also burns cooler. Engines heat up and cool down thousands of times, and an engine that doesn’t get as hot creates less stress on the engine's components over time. Alcohol fuels are good for car engines.

Oil’s monopoly of fuel leaves America’s economy vulnerable to oil price hikes. Every time oil prices have spiked since World War II, America experienced a recession. OPEC’s exploitation of oil's monopoly has generated vast funds, some of which is used to fund terrorism around the world. The two most important members of OPEC are Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom are spending their oil money on terrorism and the expansion of fundamentalism. Iran funds its nuclear program and supports the terrorist army, Hezbollah. Saudi oil financially supports the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the building of mosques and madrassas all over the world that promote fundamentalist, intolerant, militant Wahhabi Islam.

As OPEC’s income has risen over the years, so has the scale and pervasiveness of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The Open Fuel Standard would make America economically stronger and physically safer. Let’s make it happen:


Something Spectacular is About to Happen

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fuel Freedom has been getting their ducks in a row for a long time. And in the year 2014, they will demonstrate their painstaking preparation. Are you ready to see something amazing?

In 2014, the Fuel Freedom Foundation is going to launch several state demonstration projects showing how existing cars can easily be converted to run on alcohol fuels such as ethanol or methanol.

Through these state pilot projects and a public awareness campaign, Fuel Freedom will demonstrate the path to fuel choice and competition, to economic dynamism, to a new era in national security, and to breaking oil's stifling monopoly once and for all.

Sign up for their updates here, like them on Facebook, and share their posts with your friends. And if you have money to donate, send it their way. This could be the year that changes everything.


Alcohol's "Gasoline Gallon Equivalent" Measurement is Higher Than Predicted

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The oil industry has done its best to discredit alcohol fuel for over a hundred years, and one of the criticisms they've leveled most consistently against ethanol is that it has less energy per gallon than gasoline, as measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units — a measure of heat). But people who frequently use ethanol to fuel their cars, such as drivers in Brazil, have long noted that the mileage they get from ethanol is better than what is predicted by BTU measurements.

The Fuel Freedom Foundation decided to find a definitive answer this question for both ethanol and methanol. In the introduction to their white paper entitled, Is the Gasoline Gallon Equivalent an Accurate Measure of Mileage for Ethanol and Methanol Fuel Blends?, Eyal Aronoff and Nathan Taft wrote:

A presentation composed by Henry Joseph Jr. — the Product Technology Emissions Laboratory & Engine Test manager of Volkswagen Brazil — for the Brazilian Vehicles Manufacturers Association claims that ethanol performance in Brazilian vehicles is nine percent higher than predicted by energy content. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the University of Riverside claims despite a lower energy content, higher efficiency is obtained from ethanol in optimized engines.

Alcohol gets better mileage than we have been led to believe. This is an important point for many reasons. On the other hand, it may be less important for individual drivers because proponents of fuel competition are not suggesting we do away with gasoline. Once the U.S. has achieved fuel competition, whenever a driver wants to buy a fuel with greater energy density (for a longer trip or fewer refuelings, or for whatever reason), the driver will be able to put gasoline in the car (or butanol, when that becomes available).

This is one of the biggest advantages of cars that allow true fuel competition: They allow the driver to choose. If you would like to see fuel choice and competition in America, there are many things you can do to help. Here are some ideas.

Read more: Gasoline's Greater Range.


Methanol Fuel In China...And America?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

There are now more than a million methanol cars on the road in China and estimates show the fuel substitutes for 5-8% of gasoline consumption — about the same proportion that corn ethanol provides in the United States.

In this country, the proposal has been that we derive methanol from our now-abundant supplies of natural gas. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2003 but curtailed its experiment because natural gas supplies appeared to be too scarce and expensive! Instead, the main emphasis has been on tax incentives and mandates to promote corn ethanol.

China has vast shale gas supplies and could benefit from America’s fracking technology. We could benefit strongly from China’s greater experience in developing methanol cars. The pieces of the puzzle are all there. Perhaps George Olah’s proposal may be the catalyst that puts them all together.

Ironically, all this began with a Chinese-American collaboration in 1996. At the time, China had little knowledge or interest in methanol but was persuaded by American scientists to give it a try. Ford provided a methanol engine and China began ramping up its methanol industry and substituting it for gasoline. As a result, China is now the world’s largest producer of methanol, with about one-quarter of the market.

A year ago the Chinese national government was about to mandate a 15% percent methanol standard for gasoline when it ran into opposition from executives in its oil industry. Those leaders have since been deposed, however, and the 15% mandate may go ahead this year. In the meantime, provincial governments  have developed their own standards, with the Shanxi province west of Beijing in the lead.

Ironically, because methanol is only half the price of gasoline, many local gas stations are diluting their gasoline with methanol anyway in order to shave their costs. As a 2011 Energy Policy article by Chi-jen Yang and Robert B. Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment reported, “Private gasoline stations often blend methanol in gasoline without consumers’ knowledge… In fact, its illegal status makes methanol blending more profitable than it would be with legal standards. Illegally blended methanol content is sold at the same price as gasoline. If legalized, standard methanol gasoline would be required to be properly labeled and sold at a lower price than regular gasoline because of its reduced energy content. Such unannounced blending is now common in China.”

So both countries are feeling their way toward a methanol economy. As Olah points out, the problem in the U.S. is that the various advantages given to ethanol have not been extended to methanol. “One means of addressing this inequity would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard Act of 2013, which would put methanol, natural gas, and biodiesel on the same footing as ethanol (but without subsidies and without telling consumers which one to choose) for use in flex-fuel cars.”

The above is excerpted from the article, The U.S. and China on Methanol: Two Roads Converge by William Tucker.


Gasoline is the Junk Food of the Fuel Market

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gasoline needs additives* to make it palatable to an engine (which will knock or fail to run without the additives). And many of those additives are carcinogenic. And even with the additives, gasoline burns dirty, creating smoke and grime. Gasoline is potentially cheap, and once other fuels can compete with it, its cheapness will be its only advantage.

Pure methanol or ethanol can be used by an engine without any additives. They are both naturally high in octane and burn clean with high performance.

* Benzene, toluene and xylene are added to gasoline, among other additives.

Author: Adam Khan, the co-founder of and co-author of the book, Fill Your Tank With Freedom. 


How Will Oil Prices Respond to the Iran Deal?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Huffington Post ran a story last week entitled, Why Oil Prices Will Rise Despite Iran Deal. Here's why: Iran and Saudi Arabia are enemies, and Saudi Arabia will probably cut their oil production drastically in order to punish the U.S. for making the deal with Iran.

So even though Iran will add over a million barrels of oil per day to the world market (which would lower oil prices if nothing else happened), Saudi Arabia could drop their production by two million barrels a day, which would raise oil prices and hurt the world's economy, including America's.

The United States doesn't import much oil from Saudi Arabia, but that doesn't matter. Oil sells for the global price, no matter where it is produced, and a higher global price depresses and slows the American economy (and the rest of the world's). When oil prices rise, so does America's unemployment rate.

Saudi Arabia can deliberately threaten the U.S. economy, and deliver on the threat — not because they produce a large percentage of the world oil supply, but because in our fuel market, gasoline has no competition. Saudi Arabia does, in fact, produce a large percentage of the world's oil, but that's not the reason they can inflict damage on the American economy.

Even though it would be very easy and inexpensive to introduce robust fuel competition in America, we have failed to do so and that is the only reason we are vulnerable to Saudi Arabia's threats. If we had fuels available to compete with gasoline at the pump when Saudi Arabia raises the price of oil, drivers would simply switch to other fuels like methanol and ethanol, both of which are made in America from abundant American resources and could sell for far cheaper than gasoline right now.

Is it okay with you that the economy of the greatest country on earth is subject to the whim of a small, backward, misogynistic monarchy? I hope not. Our intolerable vulnerability can be completely eliminated, and within a very short time. The answer to oil's monopoly is fuel competition. The fastest way to achieve it is with the Open Fuel Standard. Please let everyone know. We need to make this happen quickly.

Author: Adam Khan, the co-founder of and co-author of the book, Fill Your Tank With Freedom. 


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