Methanol Transportation Fuel

As the most basic alcohol, methanol is a desirable choice as a transportation fuel due to its efficient combustion, ease of distribution and wide availability around the globe.  Methanol is used in transportation in 3 main ways - directly as fuel or blended with gasoline, converted in dimethyl ether (DME) to be used as a diesel replacement, or as a part of the biodiesel production process.  This video shares some information about the use of methanol in transportation.



The Methanol Institute also hosted the Methanol Policy Forum 2012 in Washington DC.  This one-day conference focused on the role of methanol in transportation - and more information is available (including videos of sessions, presentations and our resources page) on our methanol fuel focused conference page.  


Methanol Fuel

Alcohol fuels have been used widely in transportation ever since the invention of the internal combustion engine, and continue to be employed today as an alternative to gasoline derived from oil. When Henry Ford first pioneered the production of automobiles in the United States, he created engines designed to run on either gaoline or alcohol fuels.  It was only with the wide-spread introduction of cheap gasoline that alcohol fuels were tabled in favor of optimzing engines to run on gasoline.



Methanol is an ideal fuel for transportation in large part because of its efficient combustion and low cost compared to all other fuels.  When combusted, reformulated gasoline produces a number of harmful and toxic byproducts that are reduced or eliminated by replacement with methanol. Emissions of unburned carbons and carbon monoxide are much lower when consuming methanol fuel, and methanol also greatly reduces NOx emissions as well.  Methanol also burns with almost no particulate matter - which can lead to respitory problems like asthma.  Emissions from methanol fuel are also less reactive, and create less ground-level ozone and smog.

Methanol is a high octane fuel that enables very efficient and powerful engine performance.  Engines optimized for methanol are as much as 75% more efficient than conventional gasoline-fueled engines.  The power-producing qualities of methanol are well-known and it is used in several professional and amateur racing sanctioning organizations (e.g., the National Hot Rod Association and the United States Auto Club). 

But you can't simply put pure methanol fuel in your car today.  At high levels, methanol fuel is corrosive to certain materials commonly used in engines and fuel lines.  In order to be able to operate on high-level blends like M-85 (a mixture of 85% methanol and 15% gasoline), small modifcations must be made to an engine to include methanol compatible componenets.  These modifications generally cost less than 0.5% the cost of a new automobile.  Low-level blends of methanol though do not cause adverse effects to a car's engine., and can be used in cars today where the fuel is available without any adverse effect  Methanol is used as a denaturant for ethanol fuel in many countries, and some amounts of methanol are combusted with those blends everyday.

To learn more about methanol as a transportation fuel, visit our Energy Resources section.


Dimethyl Ether (DME)

Dimethyl ether (DME) and bioDME have a number of uses in products and are most commonly used as a replacement for propane in liquid petroleum gas (LPG), but can also be used as a replacement for diesel fuel in transportation.  Diesel fuel contains more energy per gallon that the gasoline that we use in most passenger cars, and where pure methanol would not be able to power a diesel engine as effectively, DME can.

Today, DME is primarily produced by converting hydrocarbons via gasification to synthesis gas (syngas). Synthesis gas is then converted into methanol in the presence of catalyst (usually copper-based), with subsequent methanol dehydration in the presence of a different catalyst (for example, silica-alumina) resulting in the production of DME.

Besides being able to be produced from a number of renewable and sustainable resources, DME also holds advantage over traditional diesel fuel because of its high cetane number - which measures the combustion quality of diesel fuel during compression ignition. By combusting more thoroughly, an engine tailored to run on DME can achieve higher efficiencies, better mileage and emissions reductions.

To learn more about dimethyl ether as a fuel, see our Energy Resources page, our DME FACTsheet and the follwing presentations on DME delivered at the International DME Associations' 2013 DME Alternative Fuel Executive Briefing which took place in Washington, DC, in September 2013:
Introduction to DME, Theo Fleisch, Director, XTL & DME Institute
DME Fundamentals, Rebecca Boudreaux, President, Oberon Fuels
DME on the Road, Susan Alt, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, Volvo
DME Value Proposition, Christopher Kidder, Executive Director, International DME Association
 


Biodiesel

Another application for methanol in transportation is its crucial role in the production of environmentally-friendly biodiesel fuel.

In the process of making biodiesel fuel, methanol is used as a key component in a process called transesterification - to put it simply, methanol is used to convert the triglycerides in different types of oils into usable biodiesel fuel. The transesterification process reacts methanol with the triglyceride oils contained in vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled greases, forming fatty acid alkyl esters (biodiesel) and the byproduct glycerin. Biodiesel production continues to grow around the globe, with everything from large-scale commercial operations to smaller, backyard blenders mixing this environmentally-friendly fuel for everyday use in diesel engines.

While other alcohols can be used in the biodiesel process, they create further steps and need more consideration than methanol.  This includes problems with water content and lack of separation of glycerin from the biodiesel that you would not experience with methanol.

To find out more about methanol in Biodiesel, visit our Energy Resources page and our BioDiesel FACTsheet.
or visit our affiliate organization, the National Biodiesel Board (www.nbb.com) .