Calling All (Methanol) Cars

Mar 10, 2019

Methanol is a high octane alcohol that should have been a contender as an automotive fuel. Methanol burns more cleanly and efficiently than gasoline without producing as much carbon monoxide and NOx. You don’t have to drill for it. It can be made from biomass and, until enough of that is available, from plentiful coal and natural gas. On the other hand, its relatively low energy density means you need more methanol to travel the same distance as you could on a gallon of gasoline. And infrastructure for fuel distribution and pumps would need to be established. 

In the 1980s, methanol was touted as the transportation fuel of the future. Major companies set themselves up to profit from this next wave. Ford partnered with the State of California’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle program to run methanol-powered vehicles in a 15-year demonstration. ARCO built the fueling stations in Los Angeles. Then other oil companies built more fueling stations, creating a methanol corridor. Other car manufacturers got on board, building flex fuel cars that could accommodate methanol or gasoline. Ultimately, five thousand cars were burning clean motor fuel in that corridor. The demonstration was a success, from a technical standpoint. But commercially, it stalled. At the time, methanol prices were about the same as gasoline’s. There wasn’t much incentive for motorists to switch fuels, and there wasn’t much enough advocacy to convince them.* So methanol, having failed to become the oxygenate of choice for the automotive fuels, stepped aside for its lower octane cousin, ethanol.

Nexant’s Maureen Haynes described the history and prospects for methanol as an automotive fuel at the IMPCA 7th Mini Conference Americas in Miami, FL on February 8, 2019.  See her presentation, Calling All (Methanol) Cars, here.

In recent years, Haynes noted, the methanol car concept is attracting interest in China, India, Israel, and parts of Europe. Geely, a Chinese car manufacturer, has the capacity to produce over 300,000 methanol cars per year.  Still, the future of methanol as an auto fuel remains uncertain. It will continue to face competition from big oil, other alternative fuels, and electric cars.

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* Bromberg, L and Cheng, W.K. (Sloan Automotive Laboratory), Methanol as an alternative transportation fuel in the US: Options for sustainable and/or energy-secure transportation – Revised. MIT, Cambridge, MA, November 2010. Accessed 3/1/2019 at https://afdc.energy.gov/files/pdfs/mit_methanol_white_paper.pdf