Methanol (CH3OH), also known as wood alcohol, is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Methanol is basically methane with its hydrogen molecule replaced by a hydroxyl radical (OH).
Although a variety of feedstocks can be used to create methanol, today’s economics favour the use of natural gas. The methanol is then produced by steam reforming natural gas to create a synthesis gas, which is then fed into a reactor vessel in the presence of a catalyst. This process will produce methanol and water vapor.
Methanol has similar chemical and physical characteristics as ethanol, when used as a combustion engine fuel.
Methanol can also be used to make methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), an oxygenate that when blended with gasoline enhances the octane and creates a cleaner burning fuel. MTBE production and use has declined in recent years because it has been found to contaminate ground water.
Methanol’s physical and chemical characteristics do offer several advantages as an alternative fuel, such as a relatively low production cost and a lower risk of flammability compared to gasoline.
However, the use of methanol has dramatically declined since the early 1990s, and auto makers are no longer manufacturing vehicles that run on it.
On the flip side, methanol can be made into hydrogen and researchers are currently looking at ways to overcome the barriers to using methanol as a hydrogen fuel source for future fuel cell vehicles.