Ethanol Vs. Methanol

Ethanol and biodiesel are dead, long live methanol! Methanol is the simplest alcohol, with one carbon atom; ethanol has two. Thus, given biomass, it should be cheaper to produce methanol than ethanol. Surely enough, in a comprehensive assessment Stone & Webster performed for the U.S. Department of Energy two decades ago, with the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute as an associate, this fact was confirmed.

However, methanol has a few flaws. First, if drunk, you can go blind. But, who drinks gasoline? Second, there was a time when methanol was used as the feedstock to produce MTBE as a gasoline additive. MTBE is carcinogenic. Methanol is not, just don't drink it. Third, methanol can dissolve certain plastics and embrittle a some metals. So change the plastic and metals to avoid this problem.

Methanol has only half the energy content per gallon of gasoline. Ethanol is two-thirds the intensity of gasoline. However, a fuel cell powered vehicle is at least twice the efficiency of an internal combustion engine, so the tank storage problem would be solved with a direct methanol fuel cell. The DMFC for portable electronics is said to soon replace batteries, so the technology is real. Methanol is the only biofuel capable of being directly fed to a fuel cell. Ethanol and gasoline need to first be passed through an expensive reformer.

Plus, and this is difficult to accept, but true: one gallon of methanol has more hydrogen than one gallon of liquid hydrogen. Thus, the infrastructure is already largely in place for a methanol economy. George Olah in his book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, provides all the science and speculation you need.

So why is our country and rest of world enamored over ethanol and biodiesel? In two words, the Farm Lobby. They came up with a politically brilliant scheme to use corn as an answer to imported oil. By so doing, the price of farm commodities recently doubled and more. Farmers are ecstatic! The poor around the world are suffering.

Global food riots occurred, so the Farm Lobby thought, oh, no problem, we'll now, more and more, begin to convert the cellulose into ethanol, for, after all, those tax incentives are already in place. Well, if you have biomass and want a biofuel, you either hydrolyze and ferment it to produce ethanol, or gasify and catalyze it to make methanol. But the current mentality is stuck in an ethanol mode. Before farmers and their partners build fermented ethanol from biomass factories, they need to totally re-think the long term and just change the congressional language to say: ethanol, biodiesel and other renewable biofuels. Methanol does not even need to be mentioned. Otherwise, they will be creating a second herd of white elephants.

With all this logic, won't methanol soon displace ethanol? No. Why? The Farm Lobby is so dominant that they will continue to insure for the continued use of ethanol for another decade because those facilities are already built, and they don't want them to suddenly become obsolete. Okay, fair enough, let those plants profitably phase out. But don't compound the problem by adding that second elephant herd.

I might add that there has been a sudden surge of interest in biofuels from algae. Certainly, as algae can be from two to ten times more efficient in converting sunlight into biomass than any terrestrial crop; grown in the ocean where there is no irrigation problem (and Peak Freshwater looms on the horizon); if fed the cold water effluent from the ocean thermal energy conversion process there will not be a need for fertilizers (deep ocean effluents are high in just the right nutrients--farm fertilizers are manufactured from fossil fuels); and with genetic engineering, who knows where this option can go--this has been my dream for a third of a century. However, the eventual costs are unknown. Yes, do the R&D, but don't expect a magic solution within a decade. Biomethanol is real and immediately available for commercial prospecting.

As no one I know is commercially jumping unto the methanol bandwagon, I will tomorrow publish a hypothetical letter to colleagues to inspire some enterprise. The strategies, then, become available to the readers of the Huffington Post. Also, too, perhaps some partnerships can be stimulated to come up to a better solution than ethanol and biodiesel. Let's do more than share ideas. Let's take action!