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. A study from Harvard University attributed nearly 20,000 deaths in 2017 to 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.
This is a serious issue, but thankfully we have a number of strategies to combat it. We haven't achieved clean air yet, but we can get there much sooner by producing and using alternative fuels like methanol.
What Is Methanol?
Methanol is a toxic, colorless, flavorless liquid with a very faint odor.
Chemically, methanol is a simple alcohol, containing only one carbon atom per molecule. It can be derived from fossil fuels, biomass (plant matter), and coal, among other materials. As its name implies, it is often derived from methane.
In practical terms, it can be used in the production of various types of fuels as well as adhesives, paints, insulation, and other materials.
The Methanol Fuel Market
In 2020, the methanol market reached a size of $27.95 billion USD, with a projected increase to $39.18 USD by 2028. This increase in demand is being driven largely by construction and automation, including the use of methanol as a liquid fuel for cars and its conversion to dimethyl ether for trucks and buses.
In 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 were run on M85 (a fuel blend containing 85% methanol) and M100 (100% methanol fuel). The country also produces a large amount of methanol fuel blends, leading the way to using it as an alternative transportation fuel.
(Learn more in Is Ethanol Fuel More Environmentally Conscious?)
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 your health, safety, and the environment. Advantages of switching to methanol includes:
- The raw materials are abundant and widely available, whether from natural gas feedstocks or biomass
- It can be sourced from a variety of different materials, making it more resilient to supply shocks
- Its high octane level allows for a higher air-fuel ratio, resulting in more engine power and greater fuel efficiency
- It is highly flammable, which reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) and organic exhaust emissions
- Organic emissions from methanol (e.g. ground-level ozone) have lower reactivity than gasoline emissions, meaning unburned methanol is less likely to produce smog
- Lower overall emissions of toxic pollutants
The Disadvantages of Switching to Methanol Fuel
Like all other fuels, methanol also has its drawbacks, which include:
- It covers less than half the distance you'd get from an equivalent amount of gasoline
- Formaldehyde emission is a potential cause for concern
- M100 (pure methanol) is a potential explosive threat in enclosed fuel tanks
- While potentially lower cost than gasoline, the process of transitioning to it can be expensive
- Engine cold starts problems are associated with M100, which could increase its carbon monoxide (CO) emissions
- If manufactured from coal, methanol could still contribute to the greenhouse gas effect
(Find out How to Track Your ESG Performance)
The Cost of Methanol Fuel vs. Gasoline
The relative cost of methanol fuel compared to the cost of gasoline is difficult to pin down. Both prices fluctuate and both have a tendency to have their cost rise above the other before dipping down below it.
Despite these fluctuations, as the following chart shows, the the price of the two tends to remain roughly on the same track.
Source: Wai K Cheng (via Researchgate)
It's important to consider, however, that methanol can be produced from a variety of sources and has the potential to become more affordable based on the source material. Gasoline, on the other hand, is a non-renewable commodity with a high potential to become scarce and expensive.
Methanol Fuel and the Environment
While it is not yet impressively cost effective when compared to gasoline, methanol's real advantage lies elsewhere.
When burned as fuel, methanol reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when compared to gasoline. These pollutants are responsible for the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog.
Methanol fuel also does not contain typical gasoline additives, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (know collectively as BTEX). These BTEX are not readily biodegradable, are capable of contaminating groundwater supplies, as well as being known carcinogens.
While not entirely benign, the burning of methanol fuel is far less harmful to the environment than gasoline.
The Health and Safety Implications of Switching to Methanol Fuel
Each year, the gasoline flowing through the fuel lines of cars and trucks is responsible for hundreds of deaths due to gasoline fires in motor vehicles.
This risk would be greatly reduced with methanol fuel. Unlike gasoline, it does not evaporate and is less prone to form vapors. Moreover, those vapors will only ignite at an airborne concentration four times greater than that of gasoline vapor. Methanol fuel, then, is far less likely to ignite and, if it does, less likely to result in a deadly car fire.
As mentioned above, methanol fuel does not contain the carcinogenic BTEX found in gasoline.
It does, however, require safe handling. Just like gasoline, it can be absorbed through the skin and must be handled with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This can range from chemical-resistant gloves all the way to full-body coveralls, depending on the amount of methanol fuel handled and the potential for exposure.
(Learn more about Chemical-Resistant Glove Materials)
Out with the Old, in with the New
Methanol is not a perfect fuel. Like all other means of powering vehicles and machinery, it has its downsides.
Nevertheless, gallon per gallon, methanol fuel is a clearly superior choice when compared to gasoline.
It is made from renewable sources, it emits less air pollution, and it can prevent the majority of car fires.
Sticking with the old and familiar option might be the easy choice. But switching to a new source of fuel is the right one.