Thursday, March 29, 2012

Is Methanol Going To Be The Next Ethanol?

Natural gas prices are very low and projected to stay there. There is even talk in the Wall Street Journal this morning of spot gas going to zero by late summer; it keeps flowing from wells (small guys need the revenue and many wells co-produce oil and gas or natural gas liquids), storage is limited, the winter was mild, and export facilities are limited. Inventory is running far higher than normal. Day by day and more and more it is becoming clear that gas recovery by directional drilling and fracturing has cause a paradigm shift in our energy outlook.

Methanol is made from gas, and gas is very cheap and likely to stay that way for decades. The politics are pushing us that way too; gas producing states, voters wanting cheap gas, and policy makers seeing energy independence are all raising the issue, an there is no doubt far more behind-closed-door activity:

The gasoline distributor recently filed suit against the EPA asking for relief on the coming ethanol blending requirements; it seems the law requires more ethanol than can be practically produced. And there is a good case against the environmental benefits of ethanol farming.

Apparently there are bill before Congress to require an "open fuel" standard by 2017.

Certainly methanol has it's weaknesses; I don't wish to flog that horse. But does it have weaknesses in the marine environment beyond those of ethanol? Water tolerance is one, and perhaps a major reason MTBE was used in place of methanol years ago. Add just a few drops of water and, BAM, the methanol layer falls out. It is not, by itself, a stable fuel. However, it seems that used in combination with ethanol, that problem may not be too serious...
... and most of the gasoline pool has 10% ethanol or will soon. Just the ethanol we are already blending should be enough to stabilize the fuel.

There is also good information here:

Enleanment may be the most formidable problem i the total alcohol content rises about 10% or even in 5% ethanol/5% methanol blends; methanol has less heating value than ethanol and like to run richer. It would seem new marine engines and outboards will need to become flex-fuel, just like cars. I expect materials compatibility issues as well, as methanol is more corrosive than ethanol, but that may be solvable with corrosion inhibitors; that technology has also improved.

I think it's quite possible we'll be seeing methanol/ethanol blends used to fulfill the EPA regulatory mandate. When? I'm sure it will be some time, but it's not to soon to look into the challenges.


  1. If we have that much methane, why not turn it into gasoline? SASOL has a commercial process doing this in South Africa, producing gasoline at about $10/barrel. That's $10/bbl of gasoline, not crude.

    s/v Eolian

  2. Great info, and yes it's time to look into the challenges and look towards the future!

  3. Surely if SASOL can do this so cheaply, it will be done. I have some doubts about their numbers and the talk in my circles reflects much higher capital and operating costs. For starters, the feedstock cost at $2.50/mm BTU for gas is --fact--more like $20/bbl, or 4 times what they claim. Additionally, the US has too much conventional gasoline refining capacity, and I expect several large facility closures this season. Gas is dirt cheap now and will be a for a few years, but 5-10 years down the road is anyone's guess (I'm guessing it will stay reasonable but rise significantly). Thus, it might be difficult to make the investment. But I do think it's going to happen. There are a few very large projects in engineering and equipment acquisition, but not well publicized yet.

    And then there are the political realities. We know they are only weakly bound by the facts.

    But all that aside, I'm just curious as to how my outboards will react. Will small outboards and lawn mowers become flex-fuel? It seems awfully impractical to add computers and oxygen sensors. I'm certain of this much: tell the American public they must switch to electric chainsaws and things will get a little ugly.

  4. Please no methanol. It will eat right through my hull-integrated gas tank. I've read that butanol is far better than either methanol or ethanol. How about butanol anyone?

  5. Methanol and FRP? That's why I started this dialog; copies went to several sailing mags. Whether or not the FRP is vulnerable or not depends on the resin; I built a ethanol-rated tank for my last boat and it managed e10 for 10 years before I sold it.

    Butanol? It really stinks, for starters (butanol is named for rancid butter). But really, it's about cost. Methanol, from natural gas, is cheap enough. The other possibilities are too expensive to consider.