By on March 17, 2009

Biologist Jared Diamond once wrote that the worst mistake in the history of the human race was adopting agriculture. It allowed a greater population compared to hunter-gatherers, but at the expense of increased vulnerability to disease, pests and warfare. Diamond underestimated humanity’s capacity for blunder, for an even bigger mistake was tying our transportation system to petroleum.

Whether we’re talking about wheat or oil, more energy means more people leading better lives. But in each case, it also means centralizing authority and becoming dependent upon a complex and easily disrupted infrastructure. Nuclear and aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin thinks it’s time we undo the damage and diversify humanity’s energy diet. Zubrin’s book Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror By Breaking Free of Oil describes how we can get there.

The key to the problem, especially for us pistonheads, is compatible fuels. Electric power plants can burn coal, natural gas, wood, municipal garbage, or a variety of other things. Industrial applications have a similar suite of possible alternatives. But when it comes to cars, there’s no Tiger in the Tank quite like liquid hydrocarbons, and those come almost exclusively from oil.

Fortunately for oil-poor countries, such as the USA, dead dino juice is no longer essential to fuel our vehicles. All we need is carbon, water, some well-known chemistry, and a little ingenuity.

The centerpiece of Zubrin’s strategy is methanol; the undrinkable single-carbon IndyCar-fueling brother of ethanol. Ethanol does have its advantages, and Zubrin is in favor of appropriate ethanol production, but methanol can be made from a far wider variety of sources.

Any form of carbon (from coal, natural gas, garbage, biomass, etc.) can be reacted with steam to form a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen called synthesis gas (syngas). Put the syngas under the proper conditions and the molecules combine to make methanol.

Methanol, in addition to being a fuel, is also a building block. Similar chemistry can be used to turn methanol into ethanol, dimethyl ether (a clean-burning diesel fuel), and ethylene (the basic molecule of plastics production). None of this involves extreme temperatures, high pressures or exotic catalysts.

The naysayers will quickly point out, “But we can’t run our cars on methanol . . . .” Sure we can. Zubrin documents that Ford was selling methanol-fueled Escorts to the California state government back in 1986. Methanol-compatible flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) were sold in the US up to 1999, and there are millions of FFVs in Brazil, the USA, and Canada that can run on gasoline-ethanol blends.

Recent developments in engine technologies make alcohol fuels even more attractive. We’ve come a long way since Ford modified its first-generation EFI system to be methanol-compatible. Imagine what can be done today with computer controls of direct fuel injection, variable valve timing, variable vane turbochargers, multi-stage intake manifolds and the like. These can all be tuned to take advantage of the 100+ octane rating of alcohol fuel blends without compromising the ability to run on regular gasoline.

Unfortunately, the US government has to date dropped the ball in the regulatory arena. Instead of mandating flex-fuel compatibility, thereby leveling the playing field for gasoline and alcohol blends, Congress has only provided a CAFE incentive for FFVs. Naturally, automakers have responded to this incentive by exploiting the CAFE credits while providing a minimal range of FFVs. In 2008, Congress did consider legislation which would have mandated car makers’ sales be 50% FFVs in 2012 and 80% FFVs in 2015, but they failed to pass legislation.

There are many reasons, as Zubrin argues, for implementing alcohol-based transportation fuels and few reasons to oppose it. It’s already working in countries like Brazil, the technology is available and inexpensive, and there are many economic, political, and environmental benefits.

Zubrin sees breaking OPEC’s economic and political influence as the primary benefit of alcohol fuels. Local production keeps money local, rather than flowing into OPEC’s coffers. Given that OPEC nations finance terrorist organizations, stopping this money stream implies defunding those organizations, which is the “energy victory” Zubrin seeks.

On the environmental front, Zubrin sees alcohol fuels as a way of increasing (yes, increasing) carbon dioxide (CO2) production. Getting the impoverished world out of poverty implies increasing its energy use, which implies more CO2. Doing so by American-style petroleum use means quintupling atmospheric CO2, while using alcohol fuels keeps global warming out of the picture.

Zubrin’s thesis is compelling, but he does occasionally gloss over some objections. For example, he focuses on alcohol chemistry but neglects known transportation and storage issues. Similarly, he discusses the energy potential of ethanol crops, but neglects the water, soil and fertilizer inputs required.

Finally, while the methanol-based economy may be a good short-term strategy, it’s only a way of stretching fossil fuels, not eliminating them altogether. In our next installment, we’ll consider another approach that may solve our long-term fuel issues.

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32 Comments on “Editorial: The Truth About Fuel, Part Two: Meths!...”


  • avatar
    niky

    The everlasting problem of alco-fuels is the food-or-fuel issue.

    When ethanol production went into overdrive over oil-price hysteria in the last two years, food prices shot up dramatically in some areas, as farmers shifted production to more lucrative ethanol products from food crops.

    And these were more lucrative simply because government incentives made them so… without “green” incentives, alcohol makes sense in only a marginal way… even the demand for alcohol in Brazil waxes and wanes with the wild fluctuation of international oil prices.

    Ethanol is certainly in our future… but until cellulosic ethanol becomes economically feasible, it won’t be a very big part of it.

  • avatar
    menno

    Drive along any interstate. There are thousands of acres of land between the roadways and alongside the expressway which are public property. We could easily grow sugar beets and convert them to Bio-butanol, which could be used in current gasoline-powered vehicles virtually without change. Tests could be run. Methanol is one idea, but why stop at 1 carbon? Butanol has 4 carbons. The vast majority of automobiles are set-up for gasoline in the US.

  • avatar
    hazard

    What about thermal depolymerization (TDP)? It’s a process by which bio-waste, like leftover bits and parts of cows and turkeys, are turned into light crude oil – basically fast-tracking the fossil fuel making process.

  • avatar

    Uh, can you make methamphetamines from methanol?

    Just wondering, because the drug could really come into it’s own then, and we’d have a lot more High School science teachers dying from inoperable lung cancer trying to become meth king-pins so they can leave money behind for their (pregnant) wives and children just like in “Breaking Bad.”

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Biologist Jared Diamond once wrote that the worst mistake in the history of the human race was adopting agriculture. It allowed a greater population compared to hunter-gatherers, but at the expense of increased vulnerability to disease, pests and warfare. Diamond underestimated humanity’s capacity for blunder, for an even bigger mistake was tying our transportation system to petroleum.

    The greatest disaster of all would be a fusion of these: deriving transportation fuel from agriculture.

  • avatar
    Eric_Stepans

    @menno – “…Methanol is one idea, but why stop at 1 carbon? Butanol has 4 carbons….”

    Zubrin focused on methanol because it’s an off-the-shelf technology that can be applied to any source of carbon. From what’s published on the Internet, butanol synthesis requires either energy or genetically engineered (= proprietary) organisms.

    The bigger point is that if the law required ALL new cars to be flex-fuel compatible, all sorts of alcohol-gasoline blends from all sorts of technologies could compete for market share.

    @hazard – I had not heard of TDP of animal waste. It sounds like a great idea. The conversion of waste to fuel is a major theme of part 3.

    @William C Montgomery –“….The greatest disaster of all would be a fusion of these: deriving transportation fuel from agriculture….”

    Yes and no. The world’s farmers actually produce something like 3,000 calories/day/person. Getting people fed is not a production issue, it’s a logistic and political issue.

    On the other hand, producing fuel from massive monocrop farms with huge energy and fertilizer inputs doesn’t make much sense either.

  • avatar
    BDB

    What is the output of carbon from burning methanol vs. burning petrol?

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    What we need is the truth about why all cars aren’t flexible fuel vehicles.

    According to what I could find on Google quickly:

    “Flex-fuel capable power plants have stainless steel fuel rails, unique fuel injectors, unique O-rings within these injectors, a different fuel pressure regulator with a special diaphragm, and non-plastic, non-rubber engine gaskets.”

    http://flex-fuelchevynews.blogspot.com/2006/04/flex-fuel-conversion-kit-what-you-need.html

    I can’t see that, by itself, being such a big deal to every manufacturer. Some are huge penny pinchers, but not all.

    The bigger deal is probably unpredictable engine wear, especially if drivers are using alternative fuels without switching to the proper lubrication.

  • avatar
    hazard

    @Eric

    I had not heard of TDP of animal waste. It sounds like a great idea.

    There is a plant in Carthage, MO which uses the waste of a Butterball plant as feedstock for a TDP process. Claimed EROEI is ~6.7 – which is pretty good (if I recall correctly EROEI on Brazilian ethanol is about 8). The Wikipedia article on TDP gives some links for companies which are trying to commercialize this on a larger scale.

    Also, the feedstock for TDP could be waste plastic, which is a refined petroleum product in any case.

  • avatar
    AWD-03

    If I understand the math correctly, burning crop based ethanol is carbon neutral as the carbon would have been released through natural decay. It is when you go for the trapped carbon from old animals (oil) that all of a sudden we have a problem. Which is why this whole concept is BS.

  • avatar
    AWD-03

    Just to add on, I completely support alt fuels to get away from a single source of fuel, but to use CO2 emissions as a reason is bunk.

  • avatar

    There’s a great book about the fallout of agriculture called “Against The Grain”. If you can make it through the sex scenes (yeah) it’s a fantastic read.

  • avatar
    Stein X Leikanger

    In Iowa, they’re not only into E85 subsidies. They’ve built a pretty impressive ammonia/hydrogen engine – 4.9l, 6-cylinder, ICE. 95% ammonia and 5% hydrogen, for a better burn.

    Hydrogen Engine Center Demonstrates Carbon-Free Hydrogen Ammonia (anhydrous) Engine

    For Immediate Release – June 5, 2007 – Algona, Iowa –

    Hydrogen Engine Center, Inc., (HYEG.OB) (HEC) demonstrated its proprietary ammonia/hydrogen-fueled Oxx Power™ engine just prior to the annual shareholders’ meeting in Algona, Iowa on May 30. This is the culmination of over three years’ effort. The test was conducted using one of the company’s Oxx Power™ 4.9 liter, 6 cylinder engines. The engine has been designed to use HEC’s proprietary Oxx Boxx™ engine controller and a dual-fuel injection system. Although the engine is capable of running exclusively on hydrogen, the test was conducted using 95% ammonia and 5% hydrogen used as a combustion catalyst. The increased density of hydrogen associated with the ammonia fuel provides the engine with significantly more power than hydrogen alone. Because ammonia contains no carbon, emissions byproducts include only slightly increased amounts of water vapor and trace amounts of NOX.

    Here’s a pdf:
    http://www.hydrogenenginecenter.com/userdocs/Ammonia_Engine_Demo_FINAL_060507.pdf

    Ammonia can also be used in Fuel Cells – and provides some definite advantages:

    http://www.apolloenergysystems.com/_newsArch/news014.html

  • avatar
    Eric_Stepans

    @BDB – As a first-order approximation, the carbon output from burning methanol is about the same as that for petrol/gasoline.

    The two major advantages of methanol are…

    1) It can be sourced from a variety of feedstocks, so it reduces dependence on any one source (i.e. OPEC).

    2) If you grow plants to create biomass for methanol, the plants extract CO2 from the air, so burning the methanol is nearly carbon-neutral.

  • avatar
    The Walking Eye

    According to some farm kids I go to school with, corn production costs have increased just as much as the bushel price of corn. IIRC, Monsanto came in and bought a lot of the small time fertilizer companies (just like they did with seeds) and basically shut them down so they’d be the only game in town, thereby allowing them to raise prices.

    None of the farmers I know are getting rich off the subsidies and if they didn’t exist corn prices would be significantly higher.

  • avatar
    paykan GT

    The USA isn’t oil poor, its just that they use a helluva lot more than they dig up.

    End of the day = same, but, well. . .

    O.K. I’m sorry, but still feel content having pointed it out

  • avatar
    dilbert

    Yes, agriculture is a huge mistake because I’d rather be hunting lions and elephants with wooden spears instead of driving to the supermarket to get my meat.

    Uh, no, it’s called progress, and although it’s not perfect and we aren’t getting mana from heaven, it is better than not progressing. Without progress, we wouldn’t have the interwebs today, and how sad will that make you?

  • avatar
    Eric_Stepans

    AWD-03 wrote:

    Just to add on, I completely support alt fuels to get away from a single source of fuel, but to use CO2 emissions as a reason is bunk.

    Zubrin actually writes that anthropogenic climate change (as we currently discuss it) is a relative non-issue (I don’t necessarily agree, but I won’t argue that here).

    But there is a giant bugaboo there. The current global warming scenarios are concerned about atmospheric CO2 going from about 280 ppm to about 400 ppm.

    If the developing world adopts USA/Western Europe-style fossil fuel use, then atmospheric CO2 increases to about 1,000 ppm. That CO2 level will produce a radically different climate than we currently have.

    So, if we are going to have the world’s impoverished are going to increase their energy use (which correlates roughly with standard of living), then we either accept a massive climatic shift, or we find carbon-neutral ways to do it.

  • avatar

    First off, making a car or light truck truly fuel flexible involves more than just using stainless steel and the right polymer gaskets in the fuel system to make sure that alcohols won’t degrade the components.

    It’s not hard to convert a car to run on a different fuel. The challenge with flex-fuel vehicles is that they have to run on 100% gasoline, 100% ethanol (or other alcohols) and every conceivable mixture in between.

    The real technological marvel in true flex-fuel vehicles is achieved by feeding the ECU with data from an infrared spectrometer sensor in the fuel lines. The IR Spec gizmo gives a real time analysis of the fuel and the ECU adjusts the fuel injection, ignition timing and valve timing (if variable) for any combination of gasoline, ethanol, methanol, or butanol.

    DuPont is big on butanol – in part because of proprietary butanol production methods that DuPont owns, but there are legitimate arguments in favor of butanol as a fuel.

    Still, if I was a betting man, I’d bet on methanol.

    My friend, Dr. Robert Buxbaum, runs REB Research, and holds basic patents on hydrogen purification and conversion. Most of the companies doing fuel cell research use his equipment. Though he’ll be a very wealthy man if we ever get to a hydrogen economy, he says that methanol makes the most sense as a transportation fuel.

    As the article indicated, it can be made from a broad variety of feedstocks, far broader than ethanol. Also, making methanol from coal (which the US has in great abundance) is a well established technology.

  • avatar
    hazard

    AWD-03 :
    March 17th, 2009 at 10:15 am

    If I understand the math correctly, burning crop based ethanol is carbon neutral as the carbon would have been released through natural decay. It is when you go for the trapped carbon from old animals (oil) that all of a sudden we have a problem. Which is why this whole concept is BS.

    Not exactly. Plants use CO2 from the atmosphere to “breathe” thus when you grow a fuel crop, you take CO2 out of the atmosphere, and then when you burn it a short time later, you relase that CO2 back into the air. Hence the term “carbon neutral”.

    Fossil fuels don’t just come from decayed animals of old, but plants also.

  • avatar
    AWD-03

    Eric_Stepans I guess that comes back to whether people are really effecting the CO levels this severly from the use of ICEs. I don’t see that holding up to research. Now if you want to dig into this and say something about the amount of CO2 sucking rainforests/old growth forests being chopped down, then I am on your side. I have never been much of a treehugger, but I would rather be a treehugger who can drive when, where, and how I want than face the alternative.

  • avatar
    AWD-03

    hazard Not disagreeing with you at all here, but those animals got their CO2 from somewhere (plants of old). So really all this CO2 came from and goes back into the air.

  • avatar

    as long as it doesn’t come from CORN

  • avatar

    What is not mentioned is the cost to produce methanol.

    It so happens that it’s cheaper to produce ethanol by fermenting sugar cane or corn and so we’re stuck with that for now, as the only non-fossil fuel.

  • avatar
    mytruth

    “Naturally, automakers have responded to this incentive by exploiting the CAFE credits while providing a minimal range of FFVs. In 2008, Congress did consider legislation which would have mandated car makers’ sales be 50% FFVs in 2012 and 80% FFVs in 2015, but they failed to pass legislation.”

    You can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but I thought this was good.

    Automakers maintain FFV targets in bailout plans

    In order to prevent bankruptcies, each of the Big Three automakers (General Motors Corp., Chrysler LLC and Ford Motor Co.) submitted loan plans to Congress on Dec. 7, all maintaining their goals of making 50 percent of their new vehicles flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) within the next three years.

    http://ethanolproducer.com/article.jsp?article_id=5262

  • avatar

    The author of this editorial has apparently missed all the discussion that occurred last year about the carbon impact of biofuels. They are absolutely NOT carbon neutral, as he claims.

    http://www.ehponline.org/members/2008/1166/focus.html

  • avatar

    Dilbert: Yes, agriculture is a huge mistake because I’d rather be hunting lions and elephants with wooden spears instead of driving to the supermarket to get my meat.

    Uh, no, it’s called progress, and although it’s not perfect and we aren’t getting mana from heaven, it is better than not progressing. Without progress, we wouldn’t have the interwebs today, and how sad will that make you?

    I would too, but I’m lucky enough to be a fairly affluent American. Roughly three billion people live on less than $2/day-equivalent. They would probably all be better off as hunter-gatherers.

  • avatar

    Being a BioDiesel home-brewer I have a familiarity with Methanol, and it boggles my mind that it is considered an alternative to petroleum. 4oz of the stuff is considered a lethal dose, and it can be easily absorbed through the skin.

    http://www.sciencestuff.com/msds/C2091.html

    Scary stuff.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    grifonik

    When viewing “energy” as a commodity, I think economics says:

    A. Oil will be sold right up (or down you might say!) to the point where the cost to get out of the ground equals the price they can get for it. This is the lower limit. The higher limit is obviously set by demand.

    B. The price they can get for it is always going to be set just below the alternative product cost (whatever that source may be) but no less than lower limit (A).

    C. Even if artificial market conditions (subsidies, taxes, etc) favor one source of energy, else where the world market is going to take advantage of the artificial market. Energy consumption processes will move to where it is cheapest. (Our loss is their gain).

    It is the same with diamonds, gold, copper, coal, clean water…. (hint, any commodity produced)

    Given A, B, and C (and economics and history both say they’re all true). It is inevitable that a vast majority of the easily gotten oil and coal reserves are going to be sucked right out of the ground until something is found that beats the magic floor price established by oil and coal.

    .
    ..

    Caveat being one global all powerful governing body not existing to control the entire market.

  • avatar
    nonce

    You can manufacture methanol using an energy source and atmospheric CO₂. Say, nuclear power. So we have a carbon-neutral energy medium.

    You can manufacture plain old gasoline the same way, for that matter.

    I’m not sure how gasoline compares to methanol, but at least we aren’t dealing with H₂.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Last time I checked, the main ingredient in the “blue” windshield washer fluid (aka “monkey pee”) is methanol, true?

    Drinking the stuff is a BAD IDEA afaik.

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