Methanol fuel: History, production & uses

For internal combustion and various engines, methanol is an alternative fuel that’s either combined with gasoline or utilized directly. It’s also used to power up racing cars in many countries however U.S prefer corn-based ethanol fuel being more economical and less toxic. Research indicated that engine performance can be optimized when ethanol, methanol and petroleum are blended. Methanol can be obtained from renewable sources, hydrocarbon or synthesis of carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

History & production

The common English name, “wood alcohol” evolved when methanol was first discovered by destructive distillation of wood known as pyrolysis. Today, it’s obtained from methane as a raw material (primary ingredient of natural gas). The Chinese developed methanol for fuel out of coal. Conversion of organic matter into synthetic gas followed by usual methanol fusion result in biomethanol!

The process has made production 75 percent more efficient and is now adapted by many countries. Following this procedure, methanol fuel cost is quite economical and environmental benefits are immense. It’s however not suitable for small-scale production. Renewable energy and carbon dioxide as a feedstock is the current method to obtain methanol fuel.

It was Reed and Lerner that anticipated production of methanol from fuel using state-of-the-art technology and gasoline alternative during the OPEC 1973 oil crisis. Swedish Motor Fuel Technology Co. assessed using alcohols and their blend as motor fuels and potential of methanol production from highly viscous oils, coal, natural gas, biomass and peat.

George A. Olah; a noble prize winner along with his colleagues’ advocated production of methanol via synthesis to be highly energy efficient! Since then, many different chemical manufacturing industries including Saudi Methanol Company entered the competition for methanol production with several procedures and advance technology.

Major uses

  • Engine combustion fuel
    Ethanol and methanol burn at lower temperature as compared to gasoline! Both processes are less impulsive allowing engine to start promptly even in cold weather. Due to high octane rating and vaporization heat, methanol fuel offer increased power output and thermal efficiency as compared to gasoline. Still, its low energy content and stoichiometric (air-to-fuel ratio) means that fuel consumption would be more than those of hydrocarbon-based.

    Also extra water presence makes the charge rather wet as in hydrogen/oxygen combustion engines. Wearing of valves and formation of acids is higher than hydrocarbon burning however additives neutralize these acids making fuel more effective. Methanol like its counterpart ethanol comprise of soluble/insoluble contaminants and halide ions having a major impact over corrosive features of alcoholic fuels.

    In automotive language, methanol is known as hydroscopic which means it has the potential to absorb water vapors directly from atmosphere. As water can dilute fuel value of methanol while separating it from gasoline blends, fuel storage tanks are sealed tightly.

  • Racing
    Methanol in its pure form was widely used in USAC Indy Car competition during 1965. It was in 1964 when seven-car crash during the second lap of Indianapolis 500 encouraged board members of USAC to use methanol as engine fuel. The entire campaign of CART circuit (1979-2007) also used methanol fuel and especially by sprint cars, midget and speedway motorcycles.

Methanol fuel is used widely in drag racing, mostly in top alcoholic category whereas 10 to 20 percent is used in top fuels besides nitro-methane. Monster Truck engines are usually powered by methanol so we can say it’s quite an important constituent in automotive industry.


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