Alcohol Fuels And The Environment

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Roberta Nichols was dedicated to the goal of a clean environment, and so were her friends in the CEC who enabled the large-scale demonstration project that put methanol and flex-fuel cars on the map. I mention this because many in the environmental community today tend to be reactively suspicious, or even axiomatically hostile, to new technologies. It would be both ironic and extremely unfortunate if they, not knowing this history, were to adopt such a stance toward the widespread adoption of methanol fuel today. Methanol-powered cars were an environmentalist baby, advocated by activists in the face of then-existing economic disincentives for their use. There were good and substantial reasons for that advocacy, and they remain valid today. Restating them is extremely important. After all, with methanol producible without a subsidy for as low as $0.93 per gallon (its mid-2007 wholesale price), and gasoline running near $3.00 per gallon, the economic case for switching to methanol now speaks for itself. The technological feasibility of alcohol flex-fuel cars has been proven, and the existence of an enormous worldwide resource base to sustain them is apparent. If the environmental case can be nailed down, there should be nothing to stop us from moving forward.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when the environmental argument for methanol conversion was first made, it centered upon the superior potential of alcohol fuels for mitigating the immediately pressing problems of air pollution and toxic spills, both on land and on water. To these classic environmental issues, more recent times have added a new issue, that of coping with the longer-term problem of global warming. In this section we will focus primarily on traditional environmental concerns, leaving most of our discussion of countering the greenhouse effect until chapter 10. Suffice at this point to say, however, that the long-term need to address the issue of global warming strengthens the already rock-hard environmental case for alcohol fuels even further.

A fundamental difference between alcohol fuels and petroleum fuels is that alcohols can mix with water, whereas oil, gasoline, kerosene, and virtually all other petroleum products cannot. The earth is a water world, covered by a huge and extremely active hydrosphere. The fact that alcohols can dissolve in this ocean, and that alcohols are readily consumed by common bacteria, means that long-term environmental degradation caused by uncontrolled releases of alcohols is impossible. Today, a quarter century after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster devastated twelve hundred miles of coastline, thousands of sea otters are still being killed by eating polluted clams. If, however, the Exxon Valdez had been carrying alcohol instead of petroleum when it wrecked, the threat to wildlife would have been rendered harmless within hours, or days at most, and the past occurrence of the event would have been made undetectable within months. Instead of hanging about for decades as a noxious oil slick, the alcohol cargo would have simply washed away and been diluted to nothing in the vastness of the sea. These same considerations hold with respect to possible seepage of methanol or ethanol into groundwater from defective pumping stations, crashed or abandoned automobiles, wrecked tanker trucks, leaky lawnmowers, or any other land-based source. On many lakes frequented by recreational powerboats today, an iridescent petroleum scum dangerous to wildlife and obnoxious to swimmers can be widely observed. If those powerboats were running on alcohol, that pollution would not exist.

Of the two alcohol fuels under consideration, ethanol is actually edible, while methanol is toxic—but then, so is gasoline. The toxicity of methanol, however, is commonly overstated, perhaps as a result of confusion with methyl-t-butyl ether (MTBE), a completely different chemical that, when used as an oxygenated gasoline additive, has caused significant groundwater contamination problems. In point of fact, methanol is present naturally in fresh fruit and vegetables, and so low doses of methanol have always been a normal part of the human diet. (It's also a major component of window washer fluid.) According to the FDA, a daily dose of 500 mg of methanol is acceptable for adult consumption.7 This is good, because in addition to natural sources of methanol, many people today choose to consume diet soft drinks, which are sweetened with aspartame. Once inside the human body, aspartame is converted to methanol via the digestive process. The dose of methanol you could expect to get from inhalation during an auto refueling operation is about one-tenth as much as you receive from drinking a diet soda. If a large dose of methanol should be accidentally ingested, there is a widely available antidote: ethanol, which is preferentially taken up by the human body.

Neither methanol nor ethanol is cancer or mutation causing. In contrast, gasoline contains many carcinogens and mutagens, including benzene, toluene, xylene, ethyl benzene, and n-hexane.8 As a result of fuel leaks and spills, incomplete combustion, and fumes from ordinary refueling operations, vast amounts of these gasoline carcinogens and mutagens are released into our environment every day, causing an increased incidence of cancer among the general public. The result is many deaths and billions of dollars in healthcare costs inflicted on the nation every year.

When burned in internal combustion engines, alcohol fuels do not produce any smoke, soot, or particulate pollution. According to the EPA, such pollution currently causes approximately forty thousand American deaths per year from lung cancer and other ailments. Converting to alcohol fuels could drastically reduce this toll.

Alcohols, especially methanol, also produce much less nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution than gasoline, because they burn cooler. Since alcohols contain no sulfur, they produce no sulfur dioxide emissions at all. Thus, conversion to alcohol would also eliminate most of the vehicular contribution to acid rain.

Ozone smog is created when sunlight drives the reaction of nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. As noted above, alcohol fuels produce less NOx than gasoline does. In addition, however, the reactivity of alcohol molecules (which might be released by incomplete combustion or evaporative emissions) with NOx in the atmosphere is less than a tenth as great as typical gasoline components.9 Not only that, but because of their solubility in water, alcohol molecules are readily swept out of the atmosphere by rain.

Methanol can also be readily dehydrated to produce dimethyl ether—DME, chemical formula (CH3)20.10 Commonly used in aerosol spray cans, DME is an excellent diesel fuel with a cetane rating of 60. This compares quite favorably to about 45 to 50 for typical conventional diesel fuel. (The cetane rating is the measurement used to assess the quality of diesel fuel, in much the same way as the octane rating is used for gasoline.) Like the alcohols—and very much unlike conventional diesel fuel—DME produces no soot, particulate smoke, or sulfur dioxide, and very little of nitrogen oxides. Replacing conventional diesel fuel with DME would thus drastically cut air pollution from trucks, trains, ships, construction machinery, and portable stationary power generators. Such important additional air quality improvements would be an ancillary benefit of transitioning to a methanol-based fuel economy.

In the longer-term future, methanol might potentially be used to power fuel cell vehicles that have no pollution emissions of any kind. However, well before that, if used as gasoline and diesel replacements in ordinary cars and trucks, alcohol fuels and their derivatives could go a very long way toward cleaning up the air.

Ethanol is made from plant material and methanol can be. All fuel so produced acts in two ways as a counter to global warming. In the first instance, since plant material is derived from carbon dioxide drawn from the atmosphere, burning it produces no net C02 increase. Methanol made from natural gas that would otherwise be vented or flared, or from municipal waste that would otherwise be decomposed by microbes, is also global-warming neutral. In addition, however, the very act of growing plants acts as a powerful mechanism for active global cooling. This is so because the leaves of plants create an enormous amount of surface area for the transpiration and evaporation of water, in the process absorbing large amounts of heat from the environment. (That is why it feels cooler on a hot day to stand on the lawn rather than the pavement.) This heat is then incorporated into water vapor, which transports it high up into the stratosphere. When the vapor condenses, the heat is released, and most of it is lost to space.

The promotion of agriculture is thus the key to fighting global warming. This can most effectively be done through the alcohol economy, which will transfer trillions of dollars of business per year from the OPEC terror patrons to the world's farmers.

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