Psst! Want to hear an idea for freeing the U.S. from foreign oil?
Alright, I know you’ve probably heard this a dozen times. There isn’t anybody left in America who hasn’t been told of some magic formula or exotic fuel additive that is going to cut gasoline consumption in half and liberate us from the clutches of OPEC.
But this idea has merit. It doesn’t involve any hocus-pocus or technological breakthroughs. It simply comes from the realization that we now have a lot more natural gas than we ever expected and we haven’t yet figured out what to do with it. There’s a very simple way that natural gas — methane — can be transformed into a substitute for gasoline in our cars.
It’s called “methanol.”
What is methanol? Well, it’s the simplest of the alcohols, made from substituting one hydroxyl ion — OH– — for one of the four hydrogen atoms surrounding the carbon atom. Instead of CH4, which is a gas, you have CH3OH, which is liquid at room temperature. On paper it looks simple enough but in reality the problem is twofold: 1) finding an adequate carbon feedstock, and 2) devising a nice, low-energy process to make the transformation.
Historically, methanol has been distilled out of wood, which gave it the name “wood alcohol.” That’s a poison, unlike its cousin ethanol, which is only intoxicating. In fact, methanol is commonly used to “denature” ethanol products such as solvents and cleaning fluids so that people won’t drink them like whiskey or gin.
Both methanol and ethanol will burn in your car engine with about 65 percent of the potency of gasoline. So it’s a trade-off. You need a bigger tank and may have to go to the gas station a little more often, but if it’s cheaper than gasoline, it’s worth it. All you need is a few adjustments to your carburetor. The auto companies can make any new car methanol-worthy for $100 a vehicle and your local mechanic can do a retrofit for $200.
So how do we know methanol can power cars as well as gasoline? Well, believe it or not, the fastest cars in the world are already running on it. In 1964, racing car drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed in a fiery crash at the Indianapolis 500. Their cars both caught fire and the smoke was so dense that five more cars plowed into them. One of those cars, driven by Johnny Rutherford, was running on methanol. Track officials later noted that, not only did the methanol fire not spread but it could be extinguished with water, whereas water only spreads a gasoline fire. Indianapolis Star writer George Moore initiated a campaign and the following year all the drivers switched to methanol. They stayed with it until 2007, when farm belt pressure forced a switch to corn-based ethanol.
In one of California’s many attempts to force technology, a fleet of methanol vehicles was also mandated there in the 1990s. By 2004 the Golden State had 10,000 on the road. The problem was finding a supply of methanol. The traditional feedstocks of wood, farm wastes, and household garbage weren’t adequate. There are other pathways but they aren’t very economical. One is to fuse hydrogen with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Only this week researchers at the University of Freiburg announced it has improved this method. But the simplest way to produce methanol is to take plain old natural gas and bathe it in steam. “It’s basically early 20th century technology,” says Yossie Hollander, a California entrepreneur who has founded the Freedom Fuel Foundation in order to promote alternatives to foreign oil. “The problem has always been that there wasn’t enough natural gas.”
The California experiment finally ground to a halt in 2005 as natural gas prices rose to $11 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) while gasoline was $2 per gallon. Methanol was just too expensive. Now that has all reversed. With the hydrofracking revolution, natural gas is struggling to stay above $2 per mcf while gasoline is near $4 per gallon. The situation has completely reversed. It’s just that nobody has taken much notice.
There has been a lot of talk about running cars on natural gas. T. Boone Pickens made a valiant effort 2008 but didn’t get very far. The problem is that so far these efforts have been built around two rather awkward technologies: 1) liquefied natural gas (LNG), and 2) compressed natural gas (CNG).
Liquefied natural gas is propane or butane, which are liquid at room temperature. Both can be synthesized from methane but are usually derived from crude oil during refining. Each can be stored and transported without much trouble. The problem is that they are heavier than air and tend to collect around a vehicle when there is a leak, increasing the danger of an explosion. Also they do not pump well and require about 20 minutes for refueling. Propane has been employed in run buses, garbage trucks, and delivery vans but is not yet used much in cars. There are currently about 150,000 LNG vehicles on the road in the U.S.
Compressed natural gas is methane stored under high pressure. This demands a sturdy gas tank but 3M has just come up with a product that may do the trick. The reinforced container adds considerable cost, however, and conversion of older vehicles can run around $6,000. CNG vehicles are common abroad and Honda, Fiat, and GM all have models. Brazil has a particularly large fleet and there are 115,000 CNG on the road in the U.S. But CNG can’t use existing gas pumps or storage tanks and distribution would require a whole new infrastructure.
So the question is: Instead of employing these difficult technologies, why not just convert methane to methanol and utilize the existing infrastructure?
We already have a thriving methanol industry with 18 plants producing 2.6 billion gallons annually. Methanol is sold for manufacturing and denaturing and it’s 30 percent of your windshield fluid. Of course that 2.6 billion gallons is a long ways from the 136 billion gallons we would need to replace half our gasoline consumption. But the potential is there.
Yossie Hollander suggests manufacturers could locate reforming plants at the terminus of natural gas pipelines, then truck the methanol to gas stations. “It wouldn’t require any new infrastructure,” he says. “You could use the pumps and storage facilities we have now.” At current prices, methanol would sell at the equivalent of $2 per gallon. “You wouldn’t need subsidies,” he says. “The market would take care of everything.”
Is there a catch to all this? Well, yes, there is one. Currently it’s illegal. “When the EPA wrote its regulations for auto emissions it approved only one fuel — gasoline,” says Hollander. “Ethanol makes it into your gas tank because it’s classified as an ‘additive.’ The EPA could easily write new regulations for methanol or classify it as an additive. It’s just a question of getting them to do it.”
Fuel Freedom is running a very smart campaign, enlisting national security experts, free market enthusiasts and environmentalists to the cause. “Methanol burns cleaner than gasoline,” says Hollander. “It would mean a big improvement in air pollution.” With prompting, a bipartisan coalition is currently shepherding the Open Fuel Standard Act through Congress. The law would require automakers to produce cars that can run on a variety of fuels, including methanol. “Right now the auto companies could produce flex-fuel vehicles any time they want,” says Hollander. “Their answer is always that they’ve tried before and nobody wanted to buy them. That could now change.
“The pieces are all in place,” he concludes. “All that’s needed is a shove in the right direction.”
With the natural gas industry wallowing in a glut, leading drillers such as ExxonMobil and Chesapeake are pulling their rigs out of the Marcellus and sending them in search of oil. Some wells are shutting down, waiting for the price to rise again. There’s talk of exporting gas but it’s a long slog. Cheniere Energy just received permission to construct an LNG terminal in Louisiana, but the opening is at least five years away.
So with a surplus of natural gas and a $780 billion annual bill for oil imports, is there any chance that a new methanol industry might resolve both problems at once? It sure looks plausible.