Methanol - The Official Chinese Liquid Transportation Fuel Of The Future

Nations seem to sanction transportation fuels based on their respective natural resource bases. Brazil, tropical center of a highly productive sugar industry, has a focus on ethanol. The US, which once was able to meet most domestic fuel demand with in-country oil production, focuses on gasoline as if it were still 1970. China, without much of either oil or sugar, has decided to go for methanol as the 'official liquid transportation fuel' of the future. The logic here is that methanol is a straightforward output of Coal To Liquid (CTL) processing and they have coal-a-plenty.Yes we know: methanol is toxic. But so is gasoline (a major constituent of gasoline is benzene, a known human carcinogen). Plus, don't forget to account for this USEPA risk analysis , from we excerpt the following information: - "Gasoline-ignited fires in 1986 involving cars, buses, or trucks resulted in 760 deaths, 4,100 serious injuries, and $215 million in property damage. Projections indicate that casualties would drop dramatically if methanol were substituted for gasoline as the country's primary automotive fuel. Looking just at vehicle fires in which gasoline is the first material to ignite, a switch to methanol could save an estimated 720 lives, prevent nearly 3,900 serious injuries, and eliminate property losses of millions of dollars per year".

Having hopefully set aside the methano-phobia for a few minutes, lets have a look at the details.

From an article in Financial Times Asia-World edition we garnered that "China is gearing up for a massive investment in a homegrown fuel source to cut its growing reliance on imports - plants to turn coal into gas and oil China's central planners have on their desks proposals for at least $24bn (€20bn, £13.6bn) worth of large-scale coal-to-liquids projects, with a number of pilot plants already under construction in Inner Mongolia and other coal-rich provinces".

In a later US edition we learned that "Beijing sets national standard for methanol as automotive fuel." "The standard, which has yet to be officially announced, was reported in a trade magazine and confirmed yesterday by an official attached to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the economic planning body responsible for the standards By the time the plants, which convert coal to liquids, start producing in 2011 to 2013, China's oil demand will have doubled, allowing methanol to supply about 10 per cent of the market."

Addressing China's increasing food demand, "Critics of ethanol say it is inappropriate to use corn to make fuel at a time when China is struggling to keep precious agricultural land in production to ensure "food security" for the country".

We have a hunch about this which transcends the ICE technology future. It is possible that direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) for transportation will cross the cost-effectiveness finish line long before a hydrogen fed PEM fuel cell gets out of the starting gate.

Kudos to the US car makers who may get to sell "flex-fuel" vehicles in China, set up for ethanol and/or methanol and gasoline blends.

Given the Rand Corporation's recent projection that the US could feasibly satisfy 25% of its energy demand from renewable fuels, and given the increased food demand that will follow the burgeoning world population, what will satisfy the remainder of our transportation needs by 2050? Cellulose is certainly the most popular current bet for investors and government research grants. Given the resources that the US has in large quantity, we think that CTL produced methanol is the dark horse for the US official liquid fuel of the future.