Methanol: A Versatile Fuel for Immediate Use (Reed, 2005) [WGT05100]

Dr. Thomas B. Reed wrote on his Biomass Energy Foundation website:

I began experimenting with alcohol and alcohol blend fuels in 1973 when I worked at MIT. I published my results in an article1, "Methanol: A Versatile Fuel for Immediate Use" with a colleague, Bob Lerner in the premier science journal, SCIENCE (Vol 182, p.1299) in December 1973. This coincided with the peak of the first OPEC gasoline shortage and the article was summarized in the New York Times. I couldn’t believe the attention we got. The public and Congress didn’t realize that cars can run on other fuels than oil. I testified in the U.S. Senate and several state legislatures and had many phone calls inquiring about what I knew and telling me many things I didn’t know.

One reader, a Mr. Hawley from Minneapolis had made a great deal of money in oil and gas and sent a check for $100,000 to me and MIT to do research on methanol production and use. I took a year leave of absence from my material science interests to work at the newly created MIT Energy Laboratory (and teach Thermodynamics). We set up a gas station test for MIT students and faculty who would be willing to use our blends in order to find out what problems might arise.

Unfortunately the oil and motor industry was less than enthusiastic. A few months later a grant of $1,000,000 was given to the MIT Energy Laboratory. We were informed that the oil companies were the real experts in this field and so the permission to run the tests was revoked after we had spent 6 months and $50,000 developing our test methods.

In 1975, SCIENCE sent a reporter, Allen L. Hammond, to MIT to investigate the project cancellation. Science published a news article1, "Methanol at MIT: Industry Influence Charged in Project Cancellation", (vol 190, p. 761, November 1975).

It is interesting – and fruitless – to speculate on how history might have been different if the US had developed an aggressive synthetic fuel program in the 1970s. The threat of alternate production from gas, coal or biomass would have tempered future rises in oil prices and reduced our funding of the Near East oil sheikhs. It would have prevented the Iran-Iraq war and the US Iraq wars and the terrorist attacks and 9-11 and saved thousands of life; it would have also saved millions of dollars. And we would have a much better estimate of the cost and means of producing the alternate fuels that we will need as the oil runs out.

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these “It might have been” (Whittier)

Now, 30 years later and facing another presidential election, we can hope that we can develop a sensible energy policy.

Permit me a little personal history of how I came to be interested in alternate fuels. In 1972 I was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in crystal growth. I ate lunch occasionally with a Peter Robeck who grew up in Germany and knew a great deal about the Nazis synthetic fuel program during WWII. He flew a spotter plane at the battle of Stalingrad fueled with what we now call “gasohol”, a high octane mixture of gasoline and ethanol (the drinking alcohol made by fermentation of corn etc.).

Oil, diesel and gasoline have become such a major base of our society that I first heard concerns about “when the oil runs out”, in 1959, and we still do. I became interested in the question of alternate fuels in 1973 when my boss asked me to look into “hydrogen from sunlight” as a possible new energy source. However, hydrogen does not occur in nature and Mother Nature has had 3 billion years of development on renewable fuels through photosynthesis. So I began inquiring about alcohols as fuels. Ethanol is easily made from any starchy plant and Henry Ford predicted that some day our case would be running on fuels growing beside the road.

However, methanol is by far the simplest and cheapest ($0.15/gal at that time) synthetic fuel to make synthetically. It is used in preference to gasoline at the race track, and I learned in 1973 that student teams had converted cars to methanol and won clean air car races. It is made in enormous quantities, mostly from natural gas. It is also be made in well known processes from coal, wood, agricultural and forest wastes and municipal wastes, according to…

Gas, Coal, Biomass ==> (gasification,catalytic conversion, separation) ==> METHANOL or other alcohols or FT diesel

A close friend of mine, Dr. John Anderson, had just patented a process for converting municipal waste to synthesis gas which could be used to make methanol. I wrote a draft of the article for SCIENCE magazine proposing that methanol would be the most likely replacement for gasoline as the oil ran out. I gave the article to another friend, Dr. R. M. Lerner to read and comment. He liked the article, but suggested that the transition to a methanol fueled future would be easier if it could be blended in increasing amounts into gasoline, say starting with 5 to 10% and gradually developing more capacity as oil became increasingly difficult to find.

I liked this suggestion, so tested a little methanol in gasoline and found it dissolved at all ratios (at room temperature). Being adventurous and having an aging 1969 Toyota, I got a gallon of methanol from the stockroom and added it to my tank to get a 10% mixture. It started fine and I spent the afternoon doing several errands – didn’t notice any difference in the driving. After a few more tanks-full of 10% methanol in my gasoline, I noticed that the “tank to tank” fuel economy was equal to or better than gasoline. As a chemist, I knew that a gallon of gasoline had twice as much energy as a gallon of methanol, so I didn’t believe it so decided to make some more scientific tests. I obtained a fuel burette (graduated cylinder) and mounted it in the window of my car and drove over a test course involving a 1 mile hill climb using 0%, 5%, 10%, 15% and 20% methanol in the burette. My mileage went up from 26.8 MPG on gasoline to 28.8 MPG on 15% methanol (a 7% increase), then declined but was still drivable.

Propane is one of my favorite fuels, because we can ship and store it as a liquid under very modest pressure, but it burns very cleanly because it is a gas at room temperature, so that it is easy to mix in proper proportion with air. Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly enough for our needs in the oil barrel.

An even better fuel closely related to methanol is dimethyl ether, DME, made by combining two methanol molecules (or directly with a suitable catalyst, according to

2 MeOH ==> Me-O-Me

Dimethly ether boils at -23.6 C, propane at -42.1, so DME can be shipped, stored and burned in similar equipment. It is even easier to make synthetically than methanol.

1 Our thanks to the Journal SCIENCE for permission to publish. Please note, “Readers may view, browse and/or download material for temporary copying purposes only, provided these uses are for noncommercial personal purposes. Except as provided by law, this material may not be further reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, adapted, performed, displayed, published or sold in whole or in part, without prior written permission from the publisher”.