Final Thoughts on Methanol
The previous essay on methanol versus ethanol resulted in a number of interesting comments. It was one of the best discussions we have had around here in a long time. Many issues were raised in the resulting discussions that warrant some clarification. So I thought I would make some final comments regarding some of the issues that were raised.
Conflicts of Interest
In a story at BiofuelsDigest – Methanol: Biofuel to love or hate? – it was suggested that I might have a conflict of interest here in my defense of methanol. That is certainly a legitimate question to ask, and I don’t mind answering it. The fact is that I have zero financial interests in methanol. My company has zero financial interests in methanol. We are not producing methanol, have never produced methanol, and we currently have no plans to produce methanol. So it would be a bit hard to have a conflict of interest when I have no interests.
On the other hand, many of the methanol bashers do have conflicts. They are invested in ethanol, and have an interest in seeing ethanol continue to operate as essentially a monopoly. The reason I decided to write the essay in the first place was because there are a fair number of hypocrites who have defended ethanol against charges of corrosivity and lower energy content relative to gasoline – and then turned around and cited those as criticisms against methanol.
What I am trying to do here is quite simple. I am trying to open up the debate to consider merits of some energy options beyond the mandated ethanol monopoly that was forced upon us. My personal belief is that corn ethanol carries great risks because it is tied to the food supply and is dependent on cheap fossil fuels. I don’t believe we will always have the luxury of using some of our most fertile soil to inefficiently produce fuel. I think in a future in which petroleum supplies are declining, we will put a premium on being able to efficiently turn biomass into liquid fuel. Ethanol produced via biological pathways will not win that race. Ethanol is presently very good at turning fossil fuels via mandates and subsidies into liquid fuel. We have been doing it for 30 years. And yet we still see the ethanol lobby stating that they need the subsidies to survive.
So my primary interest here is in seeing the world develop fuels that can actually step in as petroleum replacements as petroleum supplies decline. A major factor that will drive the success of these replacements will be low reliance on fossil fuels (as petroleum declines, natural gas prices will surely climb as well). That fuel could be ethanol. Contrary to popular opinion I have zero bias against ethanol as a a fuel. My bias is against developing faux solutions to declining petroleum supplies and only realizing our error as petroleum shortages are upon us.
Critics of methanol love to throw out the “toxicity” criticism as if this alone should end all debate. Critics were running out of adjectives trying to describe just how toxic methanol is. It is a wonder that I am alive considering how often I have washed my windows with it.
There are many, many problems with toxicity argument. Ethanol is made toxic before it leaves the ethanol distillery so people won’t drink it. Shouldn’t we therefore be alarmed that this toxic substance is in our fuel supply? Of course gasoline itself is highly toxic as well, so methanol is being charged with a crime that the other fuels are guilty of as well. The fact is, our motor fuels are toxic – and flammable. Therefore they are dangerous and we have to use them with an appropriate degree of caution.
It even went so far as someone suggesting methanol could be used as a terrorist weapon. I hate to break the news to people, but the windshield washer fluid that you can buy for a buck or two at the store contains large amounts of methanol. You can also buy fuel additives like HEET that are almost pure methanol. Perhaps Homeland Security should be advised that consumers are getting their hands on this stuff.
Of course consumers are allowed to buy all kinds of toxic substances like bleach, Drano, and antifreeze (poisonous and sweet-tasting!). The thing is, we don’t drink them. We handle them with caution, and we keep them out of reach of children. So which is more dangerous: Methanol in your fuel tank or the bottle of Drano under your sink?
It is true that methanol is slightly more corrosive than ethanol, but then ethanol is much more corrosive than gasoline. Ethanol proponents have long told us that this is no big deal; that for under $100 cars can be made compatible with ethanol’s higher corrosivity. But suddenly, these same people throw up methanol’s corrosivity as a show-stopper. They tell us horror stories about cars dissolving under methanol’s horrible powers.
I am a big believer in validating theories, so instead of theorizing about how methanol will destroy all of our cars, perhaps it would be instructive to examine methanol’s performance in the real world. The facts are that 1). A number of methanol cars are already in service; 2). Millions of people already put methanol in their cars via gasoline additives. 3). Billions of gallons of methanol are already in the fuel supply in other countries. You would think someone might have noticed their dissolving automobile fleets if the problems were as dire as critics warn. But actually Ford solved this problem back in the 80′s and 90′s, offering flex-fuel cars that could operate on blends of methanol or ethanol (see the many references to this in the Flex-Fuel Wiki).
As I pointed out previously, this is another issue that brought out a lot of hypocrisy from ethanol fans. Ethanol has a lower energy density than gasoline. Ethanol fans have defended against that charge forever, trying to minimize it as a legitimate issue. Yet suddenly they raise it as an issue when the talk turns to methanol. But actually, it is again like the corrosion issue. There is a bigger difference between gasoline and ethanol than there is between ethanol and methanol. So you have to wonder how the same person can defend ethanol’s lower energy density and turn around and criticize methanol’s lower energy density.
Energy density is something I don’t get too worked up about. Ideally, we would all like to fill up very infrequently. With ethanol or methanol we are going to fill up more often. But ultimately, the convenience of driving far outweighs the inconvenience of filling up twice as often as you do now.
Finally, I think a lot of people confuse my devil’s advocacy of some issues with real advocacy. When I suggest that we have a methanol mandate to match our ethanol mandate (real or de facto), then I am playing devil’s advocate. In fact, I don’t favor a methanol mandate. I did not favor an ethanol mandate. Mandates distort markets in unpredictable ways. I think the problem with mandates is that it becomes very hard to measure the true cost. And if you don’t know the true cost, you don’t really know if you can afford it in the long term.
At least with subsidies we know how much we are spending, and we can measure the market penetration relative to the subsidy outlay. We mandates, the cost is harder to pin down. Maybe the refiner takes a little hit, and then he passes some of that on to the consumer. But what the refiner is not doing is evaluating the economics of the mandated fuel relative to competitors – because the refiner is legally obligated to use it regardless of how much the fuel costs.
I don’t believe there is any single source of energy that is going to replace petroleum. It is going to take a combination of many different energy sources, and I believe those with the highest conversion efficiencies will ultimately win out. This is exactly why I favor thermochemical conversion processes over biochemical conversion processes; the former has significantly better prospects for higher conversion efficiencies. The product of the process can be methanol, ethanol, butanol, di-methyl-ether, gasoline or diesel. We can live with any or all of those fuels. But we can’t live with them if the conversion efficiency is low – unless we are willing to perpetually subsidize them to compensate for the low conversion efficiency. I simply don’t think this will be an option as fossil fuel supplies deplete, and that essentially defines where I am coming from.