Saturday, August 28, 2010

Methanol The Best Biofuel

Ajay has been bugging me for months to be positive in at least one blog. He asked me to opine on the thermodynamic merit of producing methanol from wood. Ray a very smart dentist living in New Zealand also asked me to opine on this subject. I have told Ajay on several occasions that methanol holds the promise to wean us off of some fraction of our oil consumption. In fact back in 2005 I presented the merits of methanol as a vehicle fuel at the national meeting of the National Hydrogen Association. The honest academics in the audience applauded my conclusions while the dishonest ones who were selling the hype of hydrogen held their applause for my talk only to give a hearty ovation for one Sam Bodman the then Secretary of Energy. Sam handed out hundreds of millions of dollars to academia and industry that very same day at that very same event for research and development of hydrogen fool cells (fuel cells). Sam the Sham is a disgrace to the chemical engineering profession. He holds a PhD in my discipline and sold out the laws of thermodynamics for political gain.

Back to the point of this blog which is the value of methanol. Methanol can be dissociated very simply on board a vehicle with the heat from the exhaust of an engine and in this process of dissociation an extra 19% of useful fuel energy is gained from the otherwise wasted heat exhausted from the engine. Back in 2005 I theorized that a gasoline engine augmented with a small fraction of dissociated methanol will be very efficient and powerful. Nothing I have read or learned in the past five years has dissuaded me from my belief that this dual fuel engine is a far better solution from an efficiency and cost perspective than the plug in battery cars that billions of dollars are being spent on to bring plugins to market. My theoretical engine will use only 5% methanol to augment gasoline allowing the gasoline engine to approach the efficiency of a diesel engine. 5% of our gasoline means we need to produce 450,000 barrels a day of methanol. This is far less than the 750,000 barrels a day of ethanol we already produce by fermentation of corn.
The preferred method to produce methanol is via the steam reformation of natural gas. However it is quite plausible to use wood from fast growing poplar trees as the fuel source for synthesizing methanol. Wood reacted with steam and a little oxygen in a gasifier will yield a synthesis gas that in turn can be synthesized into methanol. By my calculation 2 acres of poplar forest will yield 500 gallons of methanol a year. Unlike corn ethanol, there is no requirement for supplementary natural gas to perform the synthesis or purification of the methanol. Also unlike corn ethanol, wood derived methanol requires no fertilizer and does not subtract from our food supply. To yield 450,000 barrels a day we need to harvest the yearly output of some 28 million acres of forest or some 44 thousand square miles. This is a forest that is approximately 200 miles by 220 miles that is certainly within the size of the natural forested areas of the US. By my calculation if gasoline cars are methanol assisted in their operation and my disassociation idea is deployed, we would concurrently save over 2 million barrels a day of gasoline due to the improved efficiency of the fleet. A barrel of gasoline emits approximately 800 pounds of carbon dioxide. Reducing gasoline consumption by 2 million barrels a day will reduce carbon dioxide emission by 292 million tons a year.

As an example of the economic value of the reduction of 292 million tons a year of carbon dioxide valued at $20 per ton this yields a yearly value of $6 billion from the saved carbon emissions alone. The savings to consumers of 2 million barrels of gasoline a day at $3 per gallon is worth $92 billion a year. Let’s round these savings to $100 billion a year spent on 450,000 barrels a day of methanol. This equals a value of $14.50 per gallon of methanol. Producing methanol from natural gas yields a cost of about $1 per gallon. There is no doubt we can produce methanol for less than $2 per gallon using wood as the feedstock. The economic value is $14.50 per gallon of methanol so let’s have the US government support this thermodynamically viable idea rather than the junk science $100 billion is now being spent on dead end green ideas. Readers please note I do not have any vested economic interest in methanol or the dual fuel engine idea. I have offered the idea for free to any university or company that is capable of transforming my thought experiment engine into a real engine. My thoughts do obey the laws of thermodynamics and there is not perpetual motion claims in this thought experiment. I am simply theorizing that a gasoline engine can operate at a compression ratio of 16 or 17 to 1 with the assistance of dissociated methanol and achieve a thermal efficiency of 25 or 26% instead of around 15% in the present 10 to 1 compression ratio engines.

Some talented mechanical engineers may be able to convert my thought experiment into a reality. I am about as handy and capable as Woody Allen when it comes to mechanics. Remember Albert Einstein had the thought experiment of E = MC2, he did not have the skills to build an atomic bomb or a nuclear power plant he was just able to conceive the conversion of mass to energy in his mind. I am no Albert Einstein and my thought experiment is no Nobel Prize winning idea, but I promise it does hold water when the laws of thermodynamics are applied and I do believe now as I did in 2005 that methanol should play a role in our energy mix. Talking of Nobel Prizes, a couple of months after my talk at the 2005 National Hydrogen Association meeting a book titled Beyond Oil and Gas The Methanol Economy was published by Prof George Olah of the University of Southern California. Prof Olah is a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. His book that I had no idea he was writing vindicated my thought experiment and although billions of dollars were being wasted on fool cells and hydrogen by then Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman, I felt reassured that I had presented the best idea at that meeting. Prof Olah has provided me an autographed copy of his book that I cherish. Someday I know some bright mechanical engineers will pick up on the methanol augmented engine and some future day motorist will enjoy the efficiency of the practical adaption of my thought experiment.

Sam the Sham will be remembered together with Hank the Yank as being cabinet members in perhaps the most incompetent administration since James Buchanan. Our Union was fortunate that Lincoln followed Buchanan, unfortunately Obama and his Secretary of Energy Steven Chu have the same thermodynamic sincerity as the incompetent incumbents they replaced. Secretary Chu won a Nobel Prize in low temperature physics yet he too is funding junk science projects based on the pork that permeates politics especially in a reelection year. I have no doubt that Secretary Chu is one very smart person with the knowledge and competence to tell the President that most of the projects being funded will not yield “energy independence”. It is time for him to do this!