Why methanol is not an option to replace gasoline or diesel

[ Below is a U.S. House hearing on alternative fuels from which I’ve extracted the methanol portions.  Just a few of the reasons why this is not an option are:

  • The California methanol effort was abandoned for many reasons, but especially because methanol was finding its way into water supplies and its toxicity was considered a significant health concern.
  • Getting water out of methanol is even harder to do than ethanol, and water corrodes and shortens engine lifetime
  • There are no commercial facilities making methanol now

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

House 112–159. July 10, 2012. The American energy initiative part 23: A focus on Alternative Fuels and vehicles. House of Representatives. 210 pages.

Tom Tanton Executive Director, American Tradition Institute’ President T2 and Associates

California led the search for petroleum fuel alternatives with initial interest focused on methanol. Ford Motor Company and other automakers responded to California’s request for vehicles that run on methanol. In 1981, Ford delivered 40 dedicated neat methanol fuel (M100) Escorts to Los Angeles County, but only four refueling stations were installed. The biggest technical challenge in the development of alcohol vehicle technology was getting all of the fuel system materials compatible with the higher chemical reactivity of the methanol, and avoiding corrosion stemming from water absorption. Methanol was even more of a challenge than ethanol but some of the early experience gained with neat ethanol vehicle production in Brazil was transferred. The success of this small experimental fleet of M100s led California to request more of these vehicles, mainly for government fleets. However, longer-developing problems combined with high cost ultimately killed the program. At the time, almost all methanol was produced using natural gas as a feedstock, with an approximate 25% loss in energy content in the conversion from gas to methanol. Natural gas prices had increased and supplies decreased, leading to noncompetitive prices and short supplies. Ligno-cellulose based methanol (i.e. “wood alcohol”) was only available in limited quantities as is true today.


Mr. Shane Karr, Vice President of Federal Government Affairs, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

It is particularly relevant to this committee to know that emission standards in approximately 40% of the States are about to be increased, and that increase in emissions standards is somewhat problematic with FFV technology and is likely to make FFV technology more expensive. The other important point to note is that the Open Fuel Standard requires vehicles to run on E85, which is ethanol, and M85, which is methanol. While we certainly have built vehicles that can run on methanol in the past and we could do it again, the fact is there are no production facilities in the U.S. making methanol in commercial quantities right now. There are a number of other significant issues that would have to be further studied and addressed if we were going to go in that direction.

It should also be noted that if manufacturers were required to design FFVs to be capable of meeting these emission standards on methanol, the challenges become far greater on all fronts – exhaust emissions, evaporative emissions, durability and test burden. Because burning methanol produces much higher levels of formaldehyde, an air toxic, a whole new development effort focused on meeting stringent formaldehyde standards would be needed. The high volatility and permeation rates of methanol blends bring into question the feasibility of meeting evaporative emission standards (we last produced methanol vehicles before the introduction of real world test procedures in the 1990s). The corrosive nature of methanol leads to durability concerns for fuel system components. Additionally, thousands of additional tests per year would be required, which include more expensive and time-consuming measurement techniques for methanol and formaldehyde, impacting both the need for additional manpower and lab equipment. Simply put, the future emission standards were not developed taking into account the challenges of methanol.

The Methanol Experience

In the late 1980s to mid-90s, automakers produced a limited amount light-duty vehicle models that could run on an 85% blend of methanol in gasoline (M85). This experiment was in response to a series of California initiatives to increase the availability of methanol fuel and M85 FFVs across the state. Below is a generic list of components and modifications automakers may have utilized in the late 80s and 90s to transform a vehicle into a M85 compatible FFV.

The California methanol effort was abandoned for a variety of reasons. The largest was that methanol was finding its way into water supplies and its toxicity was considered a significant health concern.

It is important to note that these vehicles were produced prior to the implementation of the federal Tier 2 vehicle emissions program or enhanced evaporative emissions standards. The Tier 2 program resulted in vehicles emitting 99% fewer smog-forming emissions compared to vehicles in the 1970s. EPA and California are currently in the process of implementing new Tier 3 and LEV III vehicle emissions standards respectively that will require automakers to significantly lower the remaining 1% of smog-forming emissions. Because of the unique nature of methanol, the M85 FFVs produced in conjunction with this CA program would not have been able to meet the Tier 2 emissions targets, much less the pending aggressive Tier 3 and CA LEV III requirements.

But from a vehicle perspective, there were also concerns.

  • Methanol contains 50 percent less energy content than gasoline. Drivers had to refuel twice as often and consumer acceptance was low.
  • The fueling infrastructure was very expensive, and retailers were unwilling to mortgage their futures on an unproven fuel.
  • Today, there are no production facilities in the U.S. making methanol for use as transportation fuel in commercial quantities.
  • The U.S. currently imports over 80% of its methanol needs and the additional imports required to fuel an M85 compatible fleet would be counter to efforts to bolster U.S. energy independence and security.
  • There are no pipelines to ship it around the country and methanol cannot be shipped using conventional oil and gas pipelines due to its highly corrosive nature.
  • There are no pumps available at fueling stations (ethanol pumps would not be certified for methanol, which is more corrosive and much more problematic if it leaks and contaminates our ground water).
  • Methanol does not perform as well as gasoline when a cold engine is started, it’s worse than ethanol

Generic List of Vehicle Components and Modifications Utilized in pre-Tier 2 M85 FFVs:

  • Fuel Pump Speed Controller
  • Canister Purge Valve
  • Engine Modifications:
  1. Piston Ring chrome plated face to resist corrosion and wear.
  2. Exhaust Valve & Seat material upgrade to resist corrosion and pitting.
  3. Engine Oil- formulated to reduce the tendency of methanol to remove anti-wear additives from the oil. Also contains additives to reduce corrosion and wear due to higher acidity of blow-by gases.
  4. Throttle Body – changes made to allow canister purge at idle.
  • Wiring Assemblies – modifications required for component additions.
  • Electronic Control Module (ECM) – changes required for specific methanol inputs and outputs:
  1. Fuel Composition
  2. Fuel Temperature
  3. Fuel Tank Level
  4. Prom and Software Changes
  • Fuel Injector Driver Module
  • Ignition Coil- high secondary current ignition coil for improved cold start.
  • Fuel Rail Assembly – material changes for methanol compatibility to injectors, pressure regulator, and rail coating.
  • Pipe Assemblies – material changes for methanol compatibility.
  • Variable Fuel Sensor Assembly – monitors fuel composition (% of methanol) in fuel line.
  • Catalytic Converter – revised catalyst loading for emissions control.
  • Low Fuel Light – added because of decreased driving range with methanol.
  • Fuel Sender Control Module – interrupts current through fuel level sender to reduce galvanic attack in methanol environment.
  • Fuel Tank – stainless steel required for corrosive methanol environment.
  • Solder -silver solder required for methanol compatibility.
  • Flame Arrestors – stainless steel required to prevent fame propagation from fill door to fill tank.
  • Fuel Hose and Vent Hose – revised for decreased fuel.
  • Fuel Fill Pipe and Vent Extensions stainless steel required for corrosive methanol environment.
  • Fuel Fill Pipe – modified vent pipe to provide canister clearance.
  • Canister – increased capacity evaporative canister required because of higher vapor pressures of low methanol blends.
  • Canister Bracket – unique bracket to reposition large canister.
  • Fuel Cap – gasket materials modified for methanol compatibility
  • Fuel Sender and Pump Assembly:
  1. Higher flow pump to account for reduce energy density
  2. Extensive material changes for methanol compatibility
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