Methanol belongs to a class of chemicals commonly known as alcohols. In fact, it is the simplest alcohol that exists on earth. Its simplicity is mainly based on its structure, which contains four atoms of hydrogen, one oxygen atom and an atom of carbon, to which all the other different atoms are bonded. Methanol is sometimes referred to as wood alcohol because it can be extracted from wood (Lee and Shah 44). Importantly, these two names are based on the arrangement of various atoms in the structure of methanol. This paper gives a wide range of facts related to methanol, including its history, properties, production, uses, advantages, and disadvantages. It can be used as a means of fuel for certain engines and combustion processes; although it is a relatively less expensive biofuel method, it has certain toxic qualities that highlight its downsides.
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As mentioned before, methanol is the simplest alcohol with a single carbon atom. It can be structurally represented in various forms as shown below:
History of Methanol
Methanol has a long history, which remains relevant in understanding it as a source of alternative fuel, especially for motor-racing cars. It is essential to note that the fuel used by most of these cars has a concentration of 85% methanol. This type of fuel is generally referred to as M85. The enormous use of methanol was first witnessed in the 1970s after the world had been faced with a decade of fuel crisis (Demirbas 124). As a result, methanol was given preference in the United States for various pilot projects. Based on this emerging need for alternative energy, the government of California set aside $10 million to finance the study of alternatives to gasoline. This was to become the beginning of a journey that would later qualify methanol as an alternative source of energy after a number of experiments had been carried out.
Even though the idea of adopting methanol as an alternative source of energy was being conceived, it refueling network was considered to be insufficient. This led to a major decline in its development with low prices of petroleum products, which offered a wide range of energy options. Despite the fact that most development efforts stalled, it is worth noting that most of the advancement projects, which took place, were undertaken when the price of oil was dwindling. In some cases, a politician in Congress considered a shift of ideas by supporting the use of ethanol as compared to methanol, despite the fact that it lacked a fueling network (Demirbas 125). This change in mind was mainly based on the fact that ethanol had a better combustion potential and agricultural benefits than methanol.
In the 1990s, the demand for ethanol continued to increase, with leading car manufacturers, Ford and General Motors announcing several projects that targeted ethanol-based fuel. In other words, methanol was being phased out as an alternative source of energy in the car industry. Additionally, authorities in Los Angeles joined the efforts of eliminating buses, which used methanol-fuel (Speight 232). This move was based on cases, citing high costs of repairing vehicles caused by methanol corrosion. While this was the case, different steps had been made in California through funded experiments and research. It was discovered that methanol was a viable source of alternative energy.
In most cases, methanol has been accorded less priority for development as compared to ethanol in most parts of America. It is also used in forming other derivatives like methyl esters in the preparation of biodiesel (Chiu et al. 16). However, new efforts have been witnessed with the Open Fuel Standard, which requires the inclusion of methanol or ethanol in the manufacture of flex-fuel to a level of 95% by 2017. This proposal is before Congress, waiting to be ratified through voting.
Besides this drop-in methanol development, mainly in the United States, significant achievements have been realized around the world. For instance, a survey conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that China was the leading mixer of methanol with gas supplies around the world. This has been backed by the abundant supplies of coal, coupled with the importation of oil in the country. Importantly, M15 is a common blend, which comprises 15% methanol in selected engines. On the other hand, blends with up to M100 concentration are sold both legally and illegally as the country prepares to establish nationwide standards. Another important step, which has been made by China, is the development of facilities aimed at converting waste products into methanol (Chiu et al. 16). Flex-fuel cars are also being given more preference, a move that is likely to influence other automobile manufacturers like the United States, which largely depends on China as its market.
Besides China and the United States, Europe has also embraced methanol, though to a small extent by limiting the level of chemical blending. Nevertheless, the EU has recently given the use of methanol more support, based on certain environmental factors. Additionally, exploration efforts have been witnessed in other parts of the world like Sweden, where research is focusing on producing ethanol from biomass (Gerbens-Leenes et al. 764). On the other hand, Iceland manufactures its methanol by utilizing waste carbon dioxide. Notably, efforts to advance the use and production of methanol have also been seen in the 21st century, with numerous groups pushing for a methanol economy.
Methanol is generally referred to by some scientists as the ideal liquid source of hydrogen gas. This is because hydrogen can easily be extracted from a one-carbon atom molecule as compared to a molecule that is complex. Unlike other production approaches, methanol generated from biomass is more applicable because it is environmentally clean, when used to produce power. In most cases, wood is considered to be of higher quality when used as the starting material for the production of methanol as compared to other agricultural products (Gerbens-Leenes et al. 764). This is mainly based on the fact that it has a consistent composition of chemicals, which gives it better conversion ability to different by-products, including methanol. Additionally, the efficiency of chemical conversion and the results obtained largely depend on the entire process, which is adopted for production.
Methanol was initially produced using wood distillation. This was during the period between the 1800s and 1920s. During the process, the heat was used to produce methanol and charcoal, through a number of stages. Methanol gas was mainly produced by heating wood. This gas was later collected and cooled under low temperature in order to form liquid methanol, which found more applications than in its gaseous state (Yu, Kim and Kim 15274). Even though the production of methanol had reached better stages where approximately thirty tons of the chemical were produced using six tons of wood, the process was considered to be inefficient, prompting the need for a better approach. As a result, methanol manufacturers used mixtures of carbon monoxide and hydrogen to form the simplest alcohol.
Through technological advancements, several methods of methanol production have been developed, and most of them are more efficient and safer compared to early approaches. The use of copper as the chemical catalyst is common in these processes, allowing the entire process to be carried out under relatively low pressure, which is more economic to manage. In essence, the process involves passing hydrocarbons and steam through hot reformer tubes before being condensed under higher pressure (German, Schoneveld and Pacheco 10). After this, synthesis of methanol takes place, where copper is used as a catalyst and distillation applied to obtain pure methanol. Although there are several materials, which can be used in the production of methanol, natural gas is widely used because it is cheap, thus making the entire process more cost-effective than when other raw materials are used. However, there are biomass sources, which have become common across the globe.
In terms of production, the United States is the leading producer of methanol and prides to host eighteen active plants, which produce approximately three billion gallons of methyl alcohol annually. On the other hand, China is ranked as the leading consumer of methanol, where it is widely used in oil-blending.
Current uses of Methanol
Methanol is primarily used in the production of other chemicals and as fuel. In other cases, methanol is used in water treatment and as a major ingredient in the production of biodiesel. In chemistry, methanol has found wide applications especially in the synthesis of several derivatives and chemical intermediates (Gordon et al. 74). For instance, it is used in the production of formaldehyde and acetic acid, among other useful chemicals. Some of the secondary derivatives are largely applied in the manufacture of plastics, resins, plywood and forms.
Besides these, methanol has found huge application in the fuel sector, where it is mainly involved in the production of MTBE that is used to blend gasoline in order to reduce the number of harmful gases emitted by automobiles and engines. In some cases, methanol is utilized on a small scale as fuel and in fuel cells. In addition, methanol is widely regarded as the most reliable fuel for fuel-cell application, which is common in today’s growing mobile phone industry and in portable computers (Gordon et al. 75). Its usage is largely based on a number of factors, which qualify it as the most preferred fuel.
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Methanol is also used in racing cars because of its safety characteristics. In fact, it is the only allowed fuel for race cars in Indianapolis. However, methanol is rarely used in passenger cars and buses due to limited research developments, which were carried out in the 1980s. Most of these vehicles are found in California, which was among the first states to explore the possibility of using methanol as a fuel for buses and cars (Hasegawa, Yokoyama and Imou 110). Importantly, methanol is also used in the production of biodiesel, which has a wide range of applications and advantages. In general, biodiesel is a diesel replacement fuel, which burns with minimal emissions to the environment. It is also manufactured from raw materials, which are renewable and non-petroleum products like vegetable oils, animal fats, and used cooking oils.
During the preparation of biodiesel, these fats are reacted with methanol to form a class of compounds called esters or biodiesel. Even though any alcohol may be used in these reactions, methanol is the most preferred because it is cheap and burns effectively (Li et al. 102). This process is chemically known as trans-esterification. As a result of its efficiency, only one volume of biodiesel is required for the production of ten volumes of biodiesel. Consequently, methanol is viewed as the best raw material for this process.
Besides its wide application in the fuel industry, methanol is also used in wastewater purification. During this process, wastewater is passed through a bacterial degradation stage, in which the ammonia that is present in contaminated water is converted into nitrates (Li et al. 102). The nitrate is then removed through denitrification and bacterial degradation. Methanol is used in denitrification, and it speeds up the conversion of nitrates to nitrogen gas, which is harmless.
Advantages of Methanol
As mentioned above, methanol is widely used as fuel in racing cars and buses in some parts of California. It is therefore considered to be an alternative fuel, which is clean and environmentally friendly. In addition, the use of methanol as a fuel is more reliable than coal because it is produced from a renewable feedstock. While this is the case, it is essential to note that the production of methanol does not have negative social-economic effects on society as those associated with alternative sources of energy (Patil et al. 103). In fact, methanol can be manufactured from pulp and wood and is considered as one of the ways of dealing with overdependence on petroleum products by most countries around the world. With regard to safety, methanol fuel is less flammable as compared to gasoline. As a result, methanol is associated with less severe fire accidents, which can easily be managed.
Disadvantages of Methanol
Whilst methanol has a wide range of advantages as an alternative source of fuel, it is equally associated with several risks and demerits, which have to be considered before handling it. The first concern revolves around the safety of methanol as fuel. Several researchers have confirmed that methanol is poisonous and has to be handled with a lot of care. Based on its toxic nature, methanol is not supposed to be taken orally (Yoo et al. 105). Notably, oral exposure to methanol causes blindness and death in extreme cases where there is no treatment. Despite this risk, it is important to note that the human body naturally has a system, which can metabolize and eliminate methanol, especially when it is in low concentrations. However, the situation only worsens when the body is overwhelmed by the chemical, thus causing harm to body tissues and organs (Yoo et al. 105). Moreover, the toxic effects of methanol poisoning or exposure do not occur instantly; they are usually exhibited after several hours of exposure. It is therefore important for those people handling methanol to have relevant information and guidelines, regarding usage and its poisoning.
Another disadvantage of using methanol as a fuel is that it is costly, and the production process may not be affordable in some countries or by individuals. In essence, the cost of producing methanol is usually high when there is a need to synthesize hydrogen. This is because hydrogen is sometimes used in the production of methanol (Zhu et al. 915). Moreover, it has also been argued that methanol is not 100% clean, and may have some negative impact on the environment. In other words, the safety of producing methanol widely depends on the nature of the feedstock used. The process can only be safe if the feedstock used in the initial stages of production is safe.
Methanol also shares its chemical properties with other chemicals like hydrophilic ethanol. In particular, methanol is known to be corrosive and affects a number of metals like aluminum and zinc. This means that when it is used in engines, which have such metallic parts or coating, there is the probability of leakages, which might result in accidents or damage to the machine (Zhu et al. 916). Due to the corrosive nature of methanol, it is not possible to use the current pipeline, which is meant for the transportation of petroleum products. It, therefore, means that methanol can only be transported by train or ship in cases where its special pipeline has not been developed. This further increases its cost, as compared to other sources of energy.
Methanol compared to hydrogen and ethanol
Besides the above disadvantages of using methanol as alternative energy, research has revealed that it has several merits over hydrogen and ethanol. For instance, it is easier to store methanol than hydrogen since it has an efficient storage capacity per unit volume (Demirbas 45). In terms of transportation, liquid hydrogen requires a more sophisticated system, which is costly to establish and maintain. On the other hand, methanol requires simple infrastructure and may also be ferried using a gasoline system as long as important adjustments are carried out to reflect some of the properties of methanol. This is also based on the fact that methanol can be mixed with the gasoline to form blended fuel, a process that has been applied in China and the United States for a long time. Moreover, it is easier to handle methanol as compared to hydrogen, which can only be stored and handled under a specified pressure.
Despite the fact that ethanol and methanol are alcohols the latter has more advantages when used as an alternative fuel. For instance, methanol is relatively cheap compared to ethanol, based on the production processes employed. Notably, methanol can be produced using fossils, thus reducing its price in the market (Speight 125). Additionally, methanol has a higher blending ability with gasoline as compared to ethanol. As a result, methanol-blended fuel is more efficient than ethanol-blended products. This was demonstrated in China when it was found that M15 was equivalent to E85 in terms of fuel performance.
As mentioned before, methanol is not 100% safe. It is therefore important for users to consider certain safety measures in order to reduce the risk it has to the environment, people, and the entire community. Firstly, it is important to handle methanol in glass or metallic containers, since it is corrosive and may scorch the user’s skin when exposed. Additionally, methanol should be handled in well-ventilated rooms in order to avoid inhalation. As a way of protecting one’s health, it is essential to use protective gloves and glasses (Speight 232). This minimizes physical contact with the fuel and lowers the risk of being affected. Moreover, fire-fighting equipment should be readily available with qualified personnel to address cases of fire accidents. In case of exposure to methanol, appropriate first aid should be applied. For example, victims of inhalation should be helped to breathe in and should be relocated to a well-ventilated room.
From this analysis, it is evident that methanol is an effective source of alternative energy, which has been developed in human history. When used as fuel, methanol has a wide range of advantages as compared to other sources. Importantly, it is clean and environmentally friendly, cheap, and easy to transport. On the other hand, methanol is poisonous and may cause death in cases of extreme exposure. It is also corrosive, making the cost of transportation to be high. It is imperative for one to observe safety measures when handling it.
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