Monday, July 13, 2009

The Wrong Flex-Fuel

An article in today's Wall St. Journal highlighted another of the more obscure provisions of the mammoth climate bill recently passed by the House of Representatives. The section in question relates to the "Open Fuel Standard", which would authorize the Secretary of Transportation to require auto makers in the US to build a specified proportion of "fuel choice-enabling automobiles", including flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) that can run on fuel blends containing a high percentage of methanol, as well as the more common E85 ethanol blend. This harkens back to previous efforts to launch methanol as a consumer fuel. Fortunately, those failed to gain traction, and we should hope that continues to be the case. Methanol makes a fine racing fuel but is entirely unsuited for mass market application.

I'm perplexed why one member of Congress would be quoted as saying he wouldn't have supported the Waxman-Markey bill without its methanol provision. A simpler alcohol than ethanol, methanol is produced mainly from natural gas, rather than from biomass, and it is a common industrial chemical. Because its economics depend on low-priced sources of natural gas, much of the world's methanol is produced in the Middle East, and some plants in North America have closed. It's not clear that increased US methanol demand would be met by either domestic or non-hydrocarbon sources, so its efficacy in addressing either energy security or climate change looks questionable. That's just as well, because methanol offers an inferior way to deliver energy to vehicles, even compared to ethanol, and its toxicity makes it a poor choice for a consumer fuel.

Start with the energy side of these drawbacks. Turning natural gas into methanol consumes around 1/3 of the energy content of the gas, similar to producing hydrogen from natural gas. As with H2, there's no way to recover those losses when burning methanol in an internal combustion engine, so while direct emissions might be lower, indirect emissions negate most of that benefit. We'd be much better off just putting the natural gas directly into cars. Then there's fuel economy. Even after you modify a car to run on a 50% (M50) or 85% blend (M85) of methanol and gasoline, you can't compensate for its lower energy content without precluding operation on ordinary gasoline. While a car running on E85 typically uses 40% more fuel per mile than on gasoline, you'd need 75% more M85 to go the same distance, because methanol's energy content is 25% less than ethanol's and less than half that of petroleum gasoline. So a Ford Fusion FFV that gets a combined 21 city/highway mpg on gasoline and 15 mpg on E85 would deliver a paltry 12 mpg on M85. Even with the car's generous 17.5 gallon fuel tank, its range on M85 would be barely 200 miles.

As if these practical considerations weren't a sufficient disqualification, methanol's handling risks ought to put it out of the running for our future fuel mix. The basic problem is that, unlike gasoline or ethanol, methanol is a neurotoxin. Ingesting even a small quantity can lead to blindness or death, as described in the Material Safety Data Sheet from Methanex, one the world's largest methanol producers. Its vapors aren't much safer, and it can even be absorbed though the skin. These properties create serious concerns for both bulk handling and at the point of sale. Gasoline is hardly as safe as water, but at least if you spill some on your hand, you don't need to be hospitalized. While methanol can be handled safely by trained personnel in industrial facilities and storage terminals, that doesn't extend to the gas station forecourt, where it would pose a hazard to both customers and employees.

Consumers have rejected methanol fuel before, and I am pretty confident they'll do so again, but possibly not before the government imposes another expensive mandate on an automobile industry that surely doesn't need such distractions. The inclusion of this half-baked idea in the House climate bill is a further indictment of its managers' approach of garnering votes one special interest at a time. The Senate has an opportunity to avoid this trap by stripping out all these extraneous provisions and sending a bill to the eventual House/Senate conference committee that focuses squarely on reducing emissions without making concessions to every member's pet idea.

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