In today’s post, we’ll review if recent attention given to Synthetic Methanol is worth pursuing as a viable long term fuel alternative.
Synthetic methanol’s green credentials arise from its potential to be completely CO2 neutral. The most likely future mass-production of the fuel is by using electrochemical techniques to combine oxygen, hydrogen and carbon:
- Carbon could be sourced from carbon dioxide recovered from the atmosphere using either large scale extraction facilities or biomass.
- Oxygen would be taken from the atmosphere already contained in the CO2 molecule.
- Hydrogen would be acquired through the electrolysis of water; challenges remain in the electrical power required; in a green future, this could be supplied from renewable sources, an issue already being addressed by supporters of hydrogen as a fuel.
- Synthetic methanol can also be supplemented by production from biomass sources where properly sustainable.
- Methanol can be produced easily from a wide variety of feedstocks.
Synthetic methanol – How to make it?
Techniques for the production of synthetic methanol through the extraction of atmospheric CO2 are well developed and understood but are not being employed on an industrial scale. An early solution would be the co-location of a nuclear or hydroelectric powerplant with a conventional power station – the hydrogen generated by hydrolysis of water would be combined with CO2 from either fossil or biomass sources to make liquid methanol. In the future, large volumes of CO2 could be extracted directly from the atmosphere.
Synthetic methanol – easy to adopt?
As well as being green, another crucial advantage of synthetic methanol is that it can be introduced relatively simply. As the Exige 270E Tri-fuel demonstrates, only small changes to engines are required, such as:
- Sensors to detect alcohol content
- Modified software for engine management control driving alcohol/gasoline, flex fuel and fuel systems operations.
- Fuel lines compatible with alcohol fuels
- Higher flow rate fuel pump and injectors
- Fuel tank material, compatible with alcohol
In addition, as a liquid, which is miscible with gasoline, synthetic methanol can be transported; stored and sold to motorists exactly as today’s liquid fuels are, with only minor modifications.
Synthetic methanol – a performance fuel?
Synthetic methanol is better suited to spark-ignition combustion than today’s liquid fuels, delivering better performance and thermal efficiencies, due to its higher octane rating giving it better resistance to ‘knock’. As a result, it is a fuel that will benefit the motorists in terms of driving experience. For example, the Exige 270E Tri-fuel is quicker to 60mph from standstill and has a higher top speed when using 100% synthetic methanol fuel than with conventional gasoline. Synthetic methanol is also ideally suited to pressure-charging, a trend already well underway as car makers look to downsize engines to reduce fuel consumption.
Synthetic methanol – the way forward
Lotus Engineering regards sustainable alcohols as the third step in a process towards carbon neutral driving. The current E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) based movement represents the first stage in building momentum towards sustainable fuels. The valuable learning from the current bioethanol vehicles on the market means that synthetic methanol would easily be managed technically and within the existing transport, storage and distribution infrastructure. The steps towards a synthetic methanol economy for transportation fuels could be as follows:
- 1st Generation: There is a handful of current bioethanol models on sale around the world. These cars run on E85 bioethanol, which is produced from valuable arable crops (food). This is unsustainable in the short and medium term as global demand for fuel will outstrip the supply available from farmland to the detriment of food production, but is a necessary step in the evolution of the market.
- 2nd Generation: The next generation bioethanol fuels will be based on biomass waste, for example crop stubble, waste vegetable-based oils and any biodegradable waste matter. This is thought also to be unsustainable in the medium to long term as the required volume of biomass increases beyond that
which can be supplied.
- 3rd Generation: Sustainable alcohols such as synthetic methanol can be introduced due to its miscibility with ethanol and gasoline. This fuel can be produced from entirely sustainable, readily available inputs, with an environmentally neutral overall impact.
- 4th Generation: Direct Methanol Fuel Cells: over the longer term, sustainable alcohols in internal combustion will facilitate the soft introduction of direct methanol fuel cells as a long term sustainable future fuel. This will only be possible with pure methanol pumps on the forecourt which internal combustion engines can bring forward due to their ability to consume a mixture of fuels.
Lotus Engineering strongly believes governments, fuel suppliers and car manufacturers have a key role to play in the adoption of sustainable alcohols as a future green fuel.
If car manufacturers were incentivised to produce next generation models for introduction over the next 5 to 10 years as flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on any mix of gasoline and bioethanol, there would be no need for an unfeasible instant global changeover. Late software changes can permit the introduction of methanol and fortunately, E85 bioethanol and subsequently synthetic methanol can be introduced gradually to the marketplace, due to their miscibility.
Should fuel suppliers increase the industrial-scale production of synthetic methanol, it could be introduced to forecourts across the globe within 15-20 years and eventually become a global standard.