What is Methanol?

The Open Fuel Standard Act of 2011 allows gasoline to compete freely with ethanol and methanol. We’ve heard a lot about ethanol. But what about methanol? What is it? What is it made from? The following facts are derived from an informative PDF document on methanol, which you can download.

Also known as wood alcohol, methanol is a convenient liquid fuel made from a number of different feedstock resources — natural gas and coal as well as renewable resources like forest thinnings and agricultural waste and it can even be made directly from CO2 captured from power plant and factory emissions.

In 2010, over 45 million metric tons of methanol was consumed around the globe, or 15 billion gallons, which is roughly equivalent to global ethanol fuel demand. By 2012, global demand is expected to reach over 50 million metric tons (17 billion gallons). This steadily increasing demand is driven in large part by the expanded use of methanol as a liquid fuel for passenger cars, and also for its conversion to dimethyl ether, which is a clean alternative to diesel fuel for trucks and buses.

As demand continues to expand in the U.S. and around the world, global production capacity is growing at an even faster rate and is expected to reach over 85 million metric tons by 2012. Based on these forecasts, there will be 34 million tons of excess production capacity around the world, enough to produce 11 billion gallons of methanol per year. Additional billions of gallons of production capacity is also available today in mothballed plants in North America and facilities in Europe.

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. Timber waste, landfill gas, trash, pulp mill black liquor, agricultural waste and even CO2 pollution, among a host of other viable sources — all can be converted into methanol, as an effective way to store and distribute the energy from each source.

One of the best things about methanol is that it can be made from so many different things in so many different places. The reason this is important is that it will help protect the fuel market against the wild fluctuations it has had since the oil embargo in the early ’70s. Now more excerpts:

In order to produce 30 billion gallons of methanol fuel, we would need to only tap into less than 5% of three abundant resources in the United States, and we already have proven technologies for their conversion to methanol.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 21.2 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of dry natural gas was produced in the United States in 2008. With about 100 cubic feet of natural gas needed to produce one gallon of methanol, the production of 10 billion gallons of methanol would require 1 Tcf of natural gas, or less than 5% of current domestic natural gas production.

Also according to the EIA, the U.S. produced 1,171 million short tons of coal in 2008. It takes about 5,000 short tons of coal to produce one million gallons of methanol using proven gasification technology. The production of 10 billion gallons of methanol would require 50 million short tons of coal, or just 4.2% of current coal production.

And according to a joint DOE/USDA report, U.S. forestland and agricultural land — the two largest potential biomass sources — represent over 1.3 billion dry tons per year of biomass potential, which alone is enough to produce bio fuels meeting more than one-third of the current demand for transportation.

Using mature gasification technology, one ton of biomass can be used to produce 165 gallons of methanol, as opposed to only about 100 gallons of cellulosic ethanol. The production of 10 billion gallons of methanol would require 60 million tons of biomass, or less than 5% of the biomass production potential. With these three feedstocks alone, we could produce 30 billion gallons of methanol fuel and could meet our fuel diversity goals from less than 5% of the current production capacity of each.

Methanol will be an enormous boon to the fuel market in the United States. It doesn’t take too much imagination to suppose that the great incentive for profit brought about by the Open Fuel Standard Act will constantly produce new and better ways to make fuel from what is now simply trash, which means that the Open Fuel Standard Act will solve much more than our pollution problems and our economic vulnerability to OPEC.

And there are already so many proven sources of methanol — like agricultural waste, forest thinning, CO2 exhaust and landfill gas — and proven methods of extracting it efficiently, we don’t have to wait for further innovation. We only need more cars on the road that can burn the fuel.

If you’d like to help the Open Fuel Standard become law so we can get this fuel revolution going as soon as possible, we have plenty of practical actions you can take, and many of them will take very little time.