Motor vehicles are major sources of air pollution, producing over one third of the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide gases found in our atmosphere. This air pollution carries significant risks for human health and the environment. One study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2013 revealed that in the United States, approximately 53,000 fatalities occur every year as a result of motor vehicle emissions. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that motor vehicle air pollutants account for more than 50 percent of all cancers attributed to outdoor air pollution sources.

For more information about the health and safety risks associated with motor vehicle emissions, check out: Alternative Fuels as a Control Strategy for Motor Vehicular Air Pollutants.

Fortunately, through strategies such as alternative fuel technolgies, we can significantly reduce the air pollution created by motor vehicles.

What is Methanol?

Chemically methanol is the most simple alcohol, as it contains one carbon atom per molecule. Commonly known as wood alcohol it is a toxic, colourless and tasteless liquid with a very faint odour.

The Methanol Fuel Market

In 2010, over 45 million metric tons of methanol was consumed around the globe. This number was expected to reach over 50 million by the year 2012.

This increase in the demand for methanol fuel is solely driven by the expanding use of methanol as both a liquid fuel for passenger cars and its conversion to dimethyl ether for trucks and buses. As of 2007, China became the global driver of the methanol industry, as well as the largest methanol producer and consumer in the world. A large percent of China’s taxi and buses are currently running on M85 and M100. Further, China blends nearly one billion gallons of methanol in gasoline each year, leading the way with respect to the use of methanol as an alternative transportation fuel.

The Advantages of Methanol as an Alternative Fuel

Switching from traditional petroleum fuels to methanol fuels can be beneficial not only for your vehicle, but also to your health, safety and the environment. The following reasons highlight the advantages of using methanol:

  • Its familiar liquid form allows it to be stored and handled like gasoline

  • Vehicular development is relatively advanced therefore, it would be easy to modify gasoline engines to use methanol instead

  • The availablity of an abundant natural gas feedstock Its ease of manufacture from natural gas

  • The avilabilty of processes allowing its manufacture from coal to biomass, though at a higher cost

  • Its high octane level and wide flammability will allow for higher air fuel ratios, thus a higher engine power, which would promote fuel efficiency, as well as reduce carbon dioxide and organic exhaust emissions

  • Organic emissions such as the ozone precursors will have lower reactivity than gasoline emissions, due to the lower photochemical reactivity of methanol vapours; therefore, the emissions of unburned methanol (the primary constituent of the exhaust emitted by the methanol-fueled vehicle), whill have less smog forming potential

  • Lower emissions of toxic pollutants, except for formaldehyde High flame speed and low combustion temperatures

The Disadvantages of Switching to Methanol Fuel

Like all other fuels, methanol also has it drawbacks, which include:

  • It covers a distance of less than half of that of gasoline

  • Formaldehyde emission is a potential cause for concern

  • It has a higher toxicity than gasoline M100 has a non-visible flame M100 is a potential explosive threat in enclosed fuel tanks

  • During its transition period, it will cost more than gasoline

  • Engine cold starts problems are associated with M100; most gasoline's carbon monoxide emissions are associated with cold starts therefore, cold starts associated with M100 can increase M100's carbon monoxide emissions.

  • If manufactured from coal, it contributes to the Greenhouse Effect

Methanol Fuel Costs vs. Gasoline

Methanol is being sold for roughly US$350 per metric ton in contrast to gasoline which is being sold at US$965 per metric ton. Therefore, the current pump price for M85 would be just $1.85 per gallon including all applicable taxes and retail mark-up.

Methanol Fuel and the Environment

Over the past few years, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by methanol plants has been significantly reduced, up to 40 percent, as a result of the implementation of more efficient technologies. When burned as fuel, methanol reduces the emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. These motor vehicle pollutants are responsible for the formation of ground-level ozone or smog. Additionally, methanol fuel also does not contain additives, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX toxics), which are found in gasoline. These BTEX toxics are highly carcinogenic, do not readily biodegrade in the environment and are also capable of contaminating groundwater supplies. Therefore, when compared to gasoline, methanol is a much safer and more environmentally benign fuel.

Methanol Fuel and Health Safety

The greatest threat of using gasoline as a motor vehicle fuel is that of fires. Each year, hundreds of deaths are caused by gasoline fires in motor vehicles. Unlike gasoline, methanol does not evaporate or readily form vapours. In addition, in order for methanol vapours to ignite, its concentration in the air must be four times greater than gasoline. Therefore, methanol fuel is much less likely to cause deadly car fires if it does ignite.

Like traditional petroleum fuels, methanol fuel should never be ingested. Furthermore, both gasoline and methanol can be easily absorbed through the skin. Therefore, when handling any of these fuels, be sure to wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). If you do come into contact with methanol fuel or gasoline, immediately remove any contaminated clothing and wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. For information on selecting the right PPE, check out 6 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Guidelines Every Employee Should Know.

Out with the Old, In with the New

As you can see, methanol fuel can be an ideal alternative to traditional petroleum fuels. Methanol fuel has a lower production cost, an improved safety and ensures an increased energy security. So now that you have all the facts and figures, which would you choose? Stick to the old? Or make a switch to the new?