Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, wood alcohol or hydroxymethane, is the simplest alcohol compound. It is comprised of one carbon atom, one oxygen atom and four hydrogen atoms (CH3OH). It is poisonous, flammable and relatively volatile. It has no taste or color, but it does have a slight scent.
Many renewable energy advocates see methanol as an ideal fuel source, with distinct advantages over hydrogen. In the economy, the common fuel is hydroxymethane, with non-renewable fuels having a minority share or being entirely unused. The main area in which one sees methyl alcohol being used is in many top-end racing engines. The vehicles in the Indy 500, for example, are all run on it. It is usually produced using a fossil fuel as the synthesis gas, either natural gas or petroleum.
The production of methanol fuels is typically less costly than ethanol variants, though advances are being made in the production of both. Ethanol was traditionally made from the same types of biomass that humans and livestock consume, such as corn and sugar cane. This could make ethanol expensive to produce, and raises concerns about a potential food crisis. Much of the wood alcohol fuel in use is made from nonrenewable natural gas and coal, though biomethane is typically not made from edible biomass. Advances in ethanol production make us of other methods, such as cellulosic ethanol, that use non-edible vegetable matter.
The most common methyl alcohol in the past was created from wood, though methane gas and coal are often used. Methanol fuels are sometimes used in place of gasoline for racing applications, due to a lower volatility. Most of the attention paid to alcohol-based fuels has involved ethanol, though wood alcohol can offer benefits such as increased sustainability and cheaper production.
One benefit to using methanol is its positive effect on fuel mileage. This is also the case with motor vehicles that use a combination of gasoline and hydroxymethane in their fuel systems. Fuel systems of cars, specifically within the internal combustion engine, need to be adapted slightly to methanol compared to gasoline. This includes creating a bigger fuel injector and using sensors that can monitor the fuel composition in the vehicle.
Although hydroxymethane is difficult to manufacture and refine, it has some advantages over other alternative fuels. Specifically, when compared to a fuel product like hydrogen, methanol has the existing infrastructure to create and store the fuel. A fuel like hydrogen requires altering the entire energy infrastructure of a country over to hydrogen or similar alternative fuels.
It’s a pity that methanol is very toxic and contains a number of hazards. It is less volatile than hydrogen, but also much heavier, which could allow contamination in the case of spills or tank leaks. A wide range of groups are constantly looking for new and innovative uses for hydroxymethane, and it seems apparent that it will have a role in the energy economy of the future. Whether that role is as the key player or a supporter to hydrogen or some other fuel source remains to be seen.