Saturday, September 17, 2011

Low On Meth

There's been a fair amount of press and bloggy argle-bargle lately about using methanol as an auto fuel. The primary alleged advantage of methanol, as opposed to its chemical cousin ethanol, is that is can be made reasonably cheaply from not only any hydrocarbon source such as coal or natural gas but also that it can be made reasonably cheaply from a wide variey of biomass sources. Divorced from these issues is the fact that methanol has many of the same operational problems that ethanol does. It is highly corrosive, manageable, low in energy content, somewhat less manageable, has cold start problems equal to or worse than ethanol, manageable so far only when combined with gasoline, is even more hydrophilic than ethanol, expensively manageable, and has engine wear problems similar to ethanol, more expensively manageable yet.

Author Robert Zubrin is one of the principal interweb and print cheerleaders for the adoption of methanol as one of our principle fuel choices. His enthusiasm is palpable and his analyses superficially clearheaded but he tends to paper over, as so many alternative fuel enthusiasts do, the significant economic and operational roadblocks presented by these alternatives. Whatever the technical issues are, solvable or not, he and most all other alt-fuel boosters fall prey to the tendency to severly underestimate the various production economic factors as well as the very high infrastructure costs of such adoptions.

Let us consider ethanol which without both massive government coercion on the distribution end and scandalously large subsidies on the manufacturing end would be only a minor corn belt curiosity and play far less a roll than even the small one it does now. The forced adoption of ethanol blended fuels, from the 10-15% ethanol levels in "normal" gasoline to the 85% ethanol/15% gasoline blend known as E85 has always been, and continues to be very near a 100% political enterprise which is entirely divorced from anything resembling normal market factors.

Several decades ago ethanol first gained traction as a way to "oxygenate" gasoline fuels so that they might be less polluting. At first it was only used in areas especially sensitive to the concentration of automotive exhaust such as some areas of the mountain states and of course southern California. This effort may well have had some salutary results when vehicles were still in the carburetor/pre-computer era but things have changed radically in those decades. Now new vehicle exhausts are so incredibly clean that they are significantly past the point of diminishing returns in a technical sense although they are are still relentlessly painted as vile crud spewing monstrosities by anti-pollution zealots.

As this level of cleanliness was being rapidly approached in the last two decades those of a zealous bent found that a new cudgel with which to bash car emissions came conveniently along in the form of a vehicle's "carbon footprint". For the green zealot the only tolerable carbon footprint is zero point zero, that is to say no detectable carbon output whatsoever. Now when new vehicles are compared to their pre-computer ancestors it is easily seen that their carbon feetprints have declined in tandem with large reductions of conventional pollutants while exhibiting large increases in fuel efficiency.

In the current "climate" of global-warming zealotry the fact that new vehicles are amazingly clean devices cuts no ice whatever if they continue to irresponsibly "spew" any sort of carbon compound into the air, regardless of how low that level actually is. The big bad actor is of course carbon dioxide which is unavoidably produced by the combustion of any hydrocarbon product and being a particularly unreactive compound is stupefyingly difficult to catalytically convert to anything less harmful unlike the bugbear of previous eras, carbon monoxide. Reducing CO levels to the near vanishing point proved difficult but possible however that has not been the case with CO2. However vanishingly low CO2 emissions may become, largely as a consequence of increasing fuel efficiency, it will be extraordinarily difficult, read expensive, if not actually impossible to reduce to the zealot preferred level of zero.

As a consequence of this new ideological imperative ethanol morphed from an adjunct to conventional pollution control strategies into a welcome vessel of carbon friendliness since it is a lower carbon containing compound than gasoline. Thus began the push towards high percentage ethanol blends as a way to not only reduce carbon emissions but also to service another dubious ideological imperative, energy "independence". As it has turned out it services the reduction of carbon emissions poorly since modern engines are already fantastically clean and efficient and since ethanol has turned out to require, in even the most optimistic assessments, as much energy to manufacture as it can deliver to an engine the independendence angle has proved to be chimerical as well. In the least optimistic assessments ethanol is deemed to be strongly negative regarding its BTU out to BTU in numbers.

Mr. Zubrin seems convinced that the adoption of methanol can overcome at least some of the principle problems of ethanol. It's true that methanol can be produced from a much wider variety of sources but equally true that hydrocarbon feedstocks inevitably will prove more economically viable than biomass. Zubrin maintains that methanol can be currently produced from natural gas at about $1.38 per gallon which compares favorably to gasoline considering the fact that methanol has about half the energy per gallon. This is a highly dubious line of argument. If methanol were to be produced in the vastly greater amounts needed for any serious penetration of the motor fuels market its pricing structure would have to reflect the addition of yet another distribution and sales infrastructure alreeady burdended by not only ethanol but an unnecessary proliferation of regionally customized gasoline blends. Further if methanol production increased enough to adequately service the motor fuel market it inevitably would become a globalized commodity subject to the vicissitudes of the market and who can predict that?

The unstated, and likely unwarranted, assumption behind this putative pricing seems to be that gasoline pricing must ever continue its steady upward march thereby maintaining methanol's price equivalency. This is the sheerest of speculation at best and fuzzy-headed pipe-dreaming at worst. Even if that turned out to be true methanol pricing would, in the long term, move roughly in tandem with gasoline--Econ 101.

Moving along Zubrin seems to entirely neglect the above mentioned infrastructure costs associated with wide-scale methanol adaptation. Currently E85 is very hard to find outside the corn belt and is hardly ubiquitous at the retail level even in those more psychologically friendly environs. Even in corn-friendly precincts fuel distibutors and retailers much surely view with gimlet eyes the cost of adding yet another seriously costly transportation, tankage, and dispensing system to their sales outlets.

Heading out into the nation at large the adoption of methanol would require this additional costly equipement on a large scale, which might well happen over time, but nationwide retailers would be no less averse to these expenditures than their midwest brethren. This is the chicken/egg conundrum of all alternative fuel projects and, so far, the only "solution" to this issue has been massive government subsidies and a level of coercion that would make the Cosa Nostra blush. Ethanol would disappear from the fuel market at a rapid pace since its "demand" is an artifact of huge subsidies and fuel blending regulations. It is not needed any more as a mitigator of conventional pollution and it is an actual drag on the total energy budget of the country so retailers and consumers alike would let go of the product with both hands in the absence of regulatory coercion and multi-billion dollar midwest agri-bribes. It's true that ethanol subsidies are, er, subsiding but the gummint still holds the whip hand due to its continued insistence on including it in retail fuel blends.

Why methanol would not be subject to similar vicissitudes is left unadressed by its promoters very likely because it would almost certainly be subject to most if not all of those same issues. These days since ethanol subsidies have acquired the status of economic joke at best and outright scam at worst it beggars belief that in this era of spending contraction that methanol would be extended a helping hand of similar magnitude. It might not need a hand nearly as big as ethanol but it would be foolish indeed to assume that the adoption of methanol would any more successful, in any metric, than that of its sister hydrocarbon. If methanol can find a way to stand on its own two low carbon footsies then fine but if it finds it must grasp the dead hand of government coercion and/or lobby for market distorting subsidies and punitive tariffs then it will consign itself to irrelevancy in the long term.

As is currently being proven, with a vengeance in the case of the emerging Solyndra subsidy imbroglio, government is a grimly inept picker of economic and technological winners and for them to pick methanol to expensively chivvy along would a rank absurdity. Of course government specializes in rank absurdities lined up to the horizon but there is no discernable case to be made for adding methanol to that rent-seeking lineup.


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