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Methanol (Fuel)

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What is methanol?

Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, is a light, colourless liquid with a very distinct odour, often used as a fuel source. At room temperature methanol is a poisonous liquid solvent. It is commonly added to ethanol fuel as a denaturing agent, to avoid the large taxes associated with drinking alcohol. It is also used as an antifreeze additive in other fuels and as an ingredient in the production of biodiesel.

As an alternative fuel source to gasoline, methanol is becoming increasingly popular. This is due to the ability to produce methanol from a wide variety of feedstocks, including low carbon or carbon neutral sources. Potential feedstocks include coal, natural gas, and renewable sources such as biomass.

In China, methanol is seen as a key element in the nations’ energy security plan.

How is methanol used?

Methanol is used as a fuel source for internal combustion engines, especially in high powered racing vehicles. In the USA, methanol is required to fuel USAC sprint cars, monster trucks and speedway motorcycles. This is done to primarily to prevent vehicle explosions during collision. It is also used to power remote-controlled vehicles such as free-flight aircraft and high-powered remote-controlled cars.

Methanol is increasingly popular as an additive in traditional crude oil based fuels. These are usually blended with 1-15% methanol and can be used to fuel standard internal combustion engines. High-level methanol blends such as M85 (85% methanol) and M100 (100% ethanol) are used to power fleets of taxis and buses in China and are becoming popular for commercial fleets.

Much hope exists for methanol as a future source of renewable energy for the transport industry, especially with Chinese investment in the fuel set to continue expanding rapidly.

Who uses methanol?

Global consumption of methanol in 2010 was approximately 45 million tonnes. China is the world’s largest single consumer of methanol as a fuel, consuming 20.5 million metric tonnes of methanol, or 45% of all global consumption in 2010. Of this, approximately 33% was used to fuel the transport industry.
The USA is the second largest consumer of methanol, accounting for 5.3 million tonnes, roughly 11% of global production in 2010.

Where does methanol come from?

At the end of 2009 there were over 245 methanol plants worldwide, with a total production capacity of just below 70 million tonnes. However many of these were not operating at capacity. As a result total global production in 2010 was estimated just over 48 million tonne.

The single biggest producer is China, with Chinese production capacity exceeding 26 million tonnes in 2009.

Interesting Facts:

  • Methanol is biodegradable.
  • Burning Methanol does not contribute to air pollution.
  • In 1964 the United States Auto Club bans gasoline and switches all cars to methanol to prevent vehicle explosions, a rule which would stay in place for 41 years.

Extra References:

Wikipedia has excellent articles on methanol.
For more information, visit our Oil, Gas and Energy section.
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