Alcohol as a Transportation Fuel in the Past

Free Power Secrets

Making Your Own Fuel

Get Instant Access

The concept of using an alcohol (methanol or ethanol) as a fuel is as old as the ICE itself. Some of the early ICE models, developed at the end of the 19th century by Nicholas Otto and others, were actually designed to run on alcohol. By that time already, alcohol-powered engines had started to replace steam engines for farm machinery and train locomotives. Also used in automobiles, alcohol engines were advertised as less polluting than their gasoline counterparts. Most European countries with few or no oil resources were especially eager to develop ethanol as a fuel because it could be readily distilled from various domestic agricultural products. Germany for example, went from a production of almost 40 million liters of alcohol in 1887 to about 110 million liters in 1902 [117]. During the first decade of the 20th century, many races were held between alcohol- and gasoline-powered automobiles, and there were lively debates as to determine which fuel gave the best performances. On an economic basis, however, ethanol could hardly compete with gasoline, especially in the United States which had plentiful petroleum resources at the time and a very powerful opponent: the Standard Oil Trust, which was understandably reluctant to the introduction of any alternative fuel. World War I saw an important expansion of the ethanol industry not only for fuel uses but also for gunpowder and war gases manufacture. In the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution Lenin's first five-year plan had foreseen the wide use of agricultural grain-based alcohol for industrial uses (fuels and production of ethylene and its products). Due to opposition, however, to divert the Russian Vodka to these purposes, the plans were soon abandoned. In the United States, the prohibition - which became effective at the beginning of 1920 - outlawed the consumption of any alcoholic beverage and greatly complicated the production of alcohol, even for fuel purpose. The 1930s saw the introduction of Agrol, a blend of alcohol and gasoline which had some success in Midwestern States for a limited time but was vigorously opposed by oil companies. At the same time, European countries such as Germany, France and England - as well as Brazil and New Zealand, which were relying on imported oil - strongly encouraged the production of alcohol by offering subsidies, or even made the blending of alcohol with gasoline mandatory. It is by the way interesting to note that the very same Standard Oil of New Jersey (one of the companies resulting from the dismantling of the Standard Oil Trust) which had expressed itself against the use of alcohol fuels in the United States, was promoting its own alcohol blend in England under the name Discol. Nowhere however, was the effort of developing alternative fuels as ambitious as in Germany, where the Nazi government had the goal to achieve energy independence, mainly because of military considerations. Hitler was in fact convinced that Germany's failure in World War I was in a large part due to fuel shortages and that such a situation should never hinder the Nazi war machine. From the time Hitler came to power, the production of ethanol (mainly from potatoes) grew dramatically, reaching almost 1.5

million barrels in 1935 [117]. At the same time, methanol produced from coal via syn-gas using the process invented by BASF also expanded dramatically. Methyl and ethyl alcohol were blended with gasoline and sold under the name Kraftspirit. One of the difficulties with blending alcohols with gasoline, however, is the phase separation that can take place when moisture is present, leading to stalling of the engine. Besides methanol synthesis, the large coal reserves, especially in the Ruhr valley were also used to produce via syn-gas large amounts of synthetic gasoline following the Fischer-Tropsch process developed by I. G. Farben, the world's largest chemical company of the time. Shortly before World War II, all alternative fuels accounted for more than 50% of Germany's total light motor fuel consumption. During the war, a large part of the alcohol produced was diverted to other uses, including ammunition [118], medicines and synthetic rubber manufacture. Switzerland however, while struggling to remain neutral during the conflict, turned to methanol when its petroleum supplies were cut off. After the war the interest in alcohol-based fuels declined rapidly in United States and most other countries due to the ready availability of large quantities of cheap oil. Only with the oil crises of the 1970s and concerns about pollution, would the interest in alcohol fuels grew again. The large-scale development of alcohol fuel was most successful in Brazil, which launched in 1975 its National Alcohol Program (PNA). More than 20 years later, the production of ethanol, mainly from sugar cane and its residues amounted to about 15 million m3 per year in 1997/1998 (equivalent to some 220000 barrels of oil per day [60]), allowing millions of vehicles to run on alcohol. With production costs averaging about US$35-45 per barrel of oil equivalent, the discovery of large oil reserves off the Brazilian shore and the low oil prices of the 1990s however, the share of alcohol-fueled motor cars in total sale of news cars fell from 96% in 1985 to 0.07% in 1997! The PNA project was kept afloat by blending up to 24% of ethanol into gasoline [60]. With increasing oil prices and the introduction of flexible fuel vehicles (FFV), able to run on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, the interest in ethanol has been recently revived. The utilization of ethanol fuel in developed countries, where relatively cheap and efficient sources such as sugar cane are generally not available, is limited. The production of ethanol from corn is practiced on a relatively large scale in the United States but, compared to the size of the automobile fuel market, it covers only a very small fraction of the demand. Ethanol is, however, increasingly in demand as an oxygenated additive replacing MTBE. Although Brazil's government and agricultural producers in United States fought to establish ethanol as an alternative fuel, attention on alcohol fuels in the automotive sector also focused on methanol. This is due to the fact that methanol is a very flexible fuel which can be obtained from a wide variety of both renewable and fossil fuel resources: natural gas, coal, wood, agricultural and municipal waste, etc., at a cost generally lower than that for ethanol. The idea of using methanol as an automotive fuel was revived in the 1970s. Thomas Reed, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was one of the first to advocate methanol as a fuel in the United States, publishing in 1973 a paper in Science magazine explaining some of its advantages. In passing, Reed also mentioned its use in a methanol economy, without further elaborating on it or even using further the name [118]. He stated that adding 10% methanol to gasoline improved performance, gave better mileage, and reduced pollution. Similar results were obtained in Germany by Volkswagen (VW), with the support of the West German government. In 1975, VW began an extensive test, involving a fleet of 45 vehicles using a 15% blend of methanol in gasoline. After minimal modifications to existing engines, VW was able to operate these vehicles efficiently on methanol blends, with only minor problems [117]. At the time, the methanol blends were described as already competitive with gasoline. Furthermore, methanol (like ethanol) acted as an octane booster, the methanol/ gasoline blend delivering more power than the pure gasoline. Five vehicles running on pure methanol were also tested by VW. Cold start problems due to the lower volatility of methanol were successfully solved by using small amounts of additives such as butane or pentane. The use of methanol significantly improved the cars' performance. Methanol, being considered also safer than gasoline, has been the fuel of choice at the Indianapolis 500 races since the mid- 1960s [119]. In the United States, most oil companies were first at best apathetic if not clearly opposed to the introduction of methanol as an alternative automotive fuel. The interest of American motor car manufacturers for methanol-fueled cars was also very limited. In California, however, which was trying to reduce its significant air pollution problems and reliance on imported fuel, a research program on methanol was started in 1978 at the University of Santa Clara, where a Ford vehicle running on pure methanol was extensively tested. This test was followed by several fleets of Ford and VW vehicles operated in various state and local agencies. The 84 vehicles [120], which accumulated a total mileage of over 2 million km, showed good fuel economy and engine durability which was comparable to that of gasoline vehicles. At about the same time in 1980, the Bank of America, based in San Francisco, decided to convert most of its vehicle fleet to methanol fuel in response to high oil prices. During their lifetime, the more than 200 methanol-fueled vehicles accumulated over 30 million km on the roads. The Bank of America concluded that, compared to gasoline engines, the use of neat methanol was found to be cheaper, increased the engine's lifespan, and greatly decreased exhaust pollutants. Nevertheless, the banks interest in methanol declined rapidly with the sharp drop in oil prices of the mid-1980s. The state of California however continued its efforts on promoting methanol, mostly in the form of a blend composed of 85% methanol and 15% gasoline and called M85. A small fleet of cars using this methanol blend driven on a daily basis at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago also showed that, even in the frigid climate of northern Illinois, the cars had no problems with cold starting [121]. At the end of the 1980s, automobile companies began to develop cars powered by alternative fuels because they were concerned about meeting the new air pollution standards. These vehicles were first introduced in California, which has one of the most stringent emission control standards of the nation. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Volvo, Mercedes and others transformed exiting models to run on methanol with an additional cost of, at most, a few hundreds of dollars. Because of methanol's higher octane rating, Ford found that acceleration from 0 to 100 km h-1 was up to one second faster with the methanol-fuelled models compared to the gasoline versions [121]. Due to the limited number of filling stations dispensing the methanol blended fuel, most of the models were designed as Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs), being able to run on gasoline alone in case the M85 methanol blend was not available. This concept enabled bypassing of any lack of availability standing in the way of most alternative fuels in the early stages of their introduction. The number of methanol-fueled vehicles in use in the United States (mostly in California) reached a maximum in 1997 of still minuscule 20 000 units [122]. During the 1990s, different technological advances were achieving wide acceptance in the automobile industry: direct fuel injection, three-way catalytic converters, reformulated gasoline, etc., reducing dramatically emissions problems associated with gasoline-powered vehicles and decreasing at the same time the interest in metha-nol-based fuels. However, the recent dramatic increase in oil prices, combined with growing concerns about human-caused climate changes is reviving the interest for alternative fuels, among which methanol plays an important role.

Although the flexibility of FFVs represent a powerful means to circumvent the fuel supply conundrum, and also a way to build up the demand for methanol, it must be borne in mind that this is only a compromise, and it does not offer the best performance achievable in either emissions or fuel economy. In the long term, the use of cars optimized to run only on methanol (M100) would be preferable, and would also greatly facilitate the transition to methanol-powered fuel cell vehicles.

Looking back at the history of methanol in the automotive sector, it must be observed that the fate of methanol fuel is extremely dependent on economic aspects, and especially oil prices. Resistance to the widespread introduction of methanol by special interest groups (some of which favor agricultural ethanol), energy security issues, governmental energy and emission policies and other political considerations also play an important role. With diminishing oil and gas reserves, a new realization for the need of finding alternative solutions is finally achieving a foothold, and the future of methanol as a transportation fuel is entering a new period. Methanol is also easily dehydrated to dimethyl ether, which is an effective fuel particularly in diesel engines due to its high cetane number and favorable properties. Haldor Topsoe first promoted its use as an efficient diesel fuel in the 1990s. Interest in DME is rapidly growing

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Guide to Alternative Fuels

Guide to Alternative Fuels

Your Alternative Fuel Solution for Saving Money, Reducing Oil Dependency, and Helping the Planet. Ethanol is an alternative to gasoline. The use of ethanol has been demonstrated to reduce greenhouse emissions slightly as compared to gasoline. Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know why choosing an alternative fuel may benefit you and your future.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment