The week before last saw the Basques offer they have a fuel cell that can be fueled by methanol. With in a day I had received multiple notices that MIT in Massachusetts and Sharp of Japan were also in the hunt for methanol fuel cells. There is a lot of valuable “why” in those efforts.

The intriguing aspects of methanol center around the fact that it is a dense store of hydrogen. As a fuel or a storage of energy for the fuel cell crowd, that aspect at 99 grams of hydrogen per liter compared to liquid hydrogen offering only 71 grams per liter with the reality of methanol at any humanly comfortable temperature is a liquid while hydrogen must be kept at –253 degrees C. Methanol could be distributed through the existing infrastructure of the gasoline and ethanol industry with not terribly expensive alterations and mixes with each or as a combination of the three.

Methanol is easily obtained first chemically, most commonly using the Fischer-Tropsch Method using most any organic material whether current account growth or fossilized hydrocarbons and coal. Secondly, current account biomatter can be used to simply “brew” methanol as it is made by many species of bacteria rather than the “brewer’s yeast” to make ethanol. It can even be made from CO2, which may see methanol as a product from flue gases from burning coal. One day atmospheric CO2 capture could get economically viable and making methanol could have a role in a biospheric recycling method.

Methanol offers increased safety, as it is much harder to ignite than gasoline. Its used as a racing fuel because of this and the very high octane it offers. But when it does burn freely in the atmosphere there are no clear and visible flames like the blast of orange carbon oxidations seen when gasoline goes up.

There are downsides to measure. Methanol is corrosive to common metals like aluminum, zinc and manganese. It will interact with many plastics. It attracts and absorbs water. Evaporated methanol, while already in the atmosphere from natural biological processes would offer volatile organic compounds, the stuff smog is made from. Methanol is toxic, even more so than gasoline, even though easily treated, and if done quickly leaves no side effects, but can blind or kill nevertheless.

In the balance is the danger. Methanol stays close up when spilled where hydrogen gas would rapidly dilute into the air. But it’s much harder to ignite than gasoline, which makes that comparison a safer one. When leaked it dissipates into water quickly and biodegrades when the concentration gets dilute enough. It actually can be used to de-nitrify water as it is a nutrient for those kinds of bacteria.

The trigger has to be using methanol for personal transport fuel. China has already added methanol to the gasoline fuel inventory along with ethanol and are up to 1 billions gallons of annual use with a mandated fuel standard this year.

But no amount of diluting gasoline and adding octane and increasing compression in internal compression engines can compare to what will likely come in the next months or years.

Fuel Cell Membrane Sample

Direct methanol fuel cell research is closing in on the problem of methanol getting past the fuel cell membrane and the tendency of the CO2 to congregate at the anode. That’s why the research announcement from the University of the Basque Country and the onslaught of emails about the MIT effort and that promptly got a press release announcement out last Friday may be pretty exciting.  (The MIT link has a small video about their new material, an animation of the process of layering up the membrane and photos.)

In the raw, and I mean raw numbers, methanol is about half as dense as gasoline and a third lower again from ethanol. Running methanol through a 20% efficient internal combustion engine would suggest that the price or economics would need the fuel cost per mile to be about half or better to compensate.

However, if the methanol is going through a fuel cell that is 50% efficient, and the drive train is 80% efficient, a liter or gallon would be somewhat equivalent to being used in an IC engine. With likely more power from electric drive and very similar personal transportation vehicles, the oil price issue could disappear.

President Bush was quite on point when he cautioned the Middle East’s leadership that they best get on with expanding and diversifying their economies.

Keep in mind, methanol is much easier to make than ethanol. It seems like most anything organic can be reformed into methanol either biologically or chemically. Once the research yields a highly efficient long lasting and economically made fuel cell with an output that can feed a capacitor and or battery bank connected to an electric drive train – the world will change once again. And if the efficiency is high enough and the methanol abundant enough the vehicle to grid idea might actually get traction and very long legs, indeed.

Yup. The coming craze may be (pretty likely) methanol. What a ride it will be!


3 Comments so far

  1. A Fuel Cell Breaks Out | New Energy and Fuel on June 30, 2008 6:14 AM

    […] This is a sense of what is coming. Intense research in underway from Japan to the U.S. and on to Eur… […]

  2. Spotlighting the Dark Horse of Alternative Fuels | New Energy and Fuel on July 18, 2008 6:03 AM

    […] There are also intense efforts underway in Europe, the U.S., Japan and China to integrate and increa… The U.S. Department of Defense has begun deploying fuel cell equipment fueled by methanol, MIT has a new material for the fuel cell membrane that may become a huge cost reducer, the Spanish are determined to top everyone’s efforts with a catalyst added to the cell to assist in the process that displaces using the expensive mineral platinum. The Japanese are racing and partnering with other leaders and have a newsletter system to keep researchers up on who has accomplished what. […]

  3. Alaine Cristobal on June 23, 2012 8:02 AM

    wonderful submit, very informative. I ponder why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You should continue your writing. I’m confident, you have a great readers’ base already!

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