Methanol Storage and Distribution

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In parallel to the development of methanol-fueled vehicles, a widespread distribution network for methanol will have to be established to make it as easily available for the consumer as are petroleum-based fuels today. While the passage from ICE to fuel cell-powered methanol vehicles represents a radical technological change, the development of a fueling infrastructure to fuel them is not. Refueling stations dispensing methanol will be almost identical to today's fueling stations, reflecting very little change to consumers' habits. Rather than gasoline or diesel fuel, they will simply fill their tanks at the local service station with a different liquid fuel.

The installation of methanol storage tanks and distributing pumps in existing facilities or specifically designed stations is quite straightforward, and is in any case no more difficult than the installation of their gasoline counterparts. Starting in the late 1980s, a network of almost a hundred methanol refueling stations was built in California to fuel the private and state-owned 15 000 or so methanol-pow-ered vehicles. Most of these were Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFV), able to run on any mixture of methanol and gasoline, and usually fueled with M85 (85% methanol and 15% gasoline), though others were designed specifically to run on pure methanol (M100). Other methanol pumps were also installed across the United States and Canada [164].

For retail stations, the conversion costs are minimal. Converting existing doubled-walled underground gasoline or diesel fuel storage tanks and installing new piping and dispenser pumps compatible with methanol is quite trivial. For some $20000, an existing 40000 L tank can be cleaned and the remainder of the system equipped with methanol-compatible elements. The complete operation takes only about one week. The cost of adding a new double-walled underground methanol storage with a 40 000 L capacity and methanol-compatible piping, dispensers, valves, etc. to an existing service station is around $60 00065 000. In rural areas, or where space is available and local codes allow, an above-ground storage tank can be installed and the overall cost reduced to about $55 000 [164]. This means that in the United States, an investment of about $1 billion would enable 10% of the 180000 service stations to distribute methanol, and for less than $3 billion, methanol pumps could be added to one-fourth of the service stations [119, 153]. This amounts only to a fraction of the more than $12 billion that have been spent by the oil industry to introduce reformulated gasoline to United States service stations [153].

Methanol fueling stations are also much less capital intensive than an infrastructure based on hydrogen, which would need special equipment and materials to handle high pressures or very low temperatures. General Motors has estimated that in order to build 11 700 new hydrogen fueling stations, $10-15 billion would have to be invested [165], which represents about $1 million per station. Besides the high cost, the technology to dispense hydrogen is presently still immature and has not yet reached the degree of convenience and safety that consumers have come to expect with conventional liquid fuels. Numbers of regulations also stand in the way of hydrogen. In the United States, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) currently prohibits the placing of hydrogen fueling equipment within 25 m of gasoline pumps [153]. This makes hydrogen pumps difficult - or even impossible - to install in most existing fueling stations, especially in cities. Further higher costs are thus expected if hydrogen has to be dispensed in hydrogen-only stations. Ease of delivering liquid methanol from production centers to local stations avoids all the difficulties encountered for hydrogen transportation whether under high pressure or in cryogenic form.

Today already, methanol is a widely available commodity with extensive distribution and storage capacity in place. More than 500000 tons of methanol are presently transported each month to diverse and scattered users in the United States alone [134], by rail, boat, and trucks. Overland, transport by railway - where methanol is moved in rail cars each holding about 100 tons - is the preferred option for the long-distance transportation of bulk quantities. The railroad system in the United States, Europe, Japan and other major consuming countries is generally very comprehensive, enabling methanol shipments to be made to all major markets. For smaller volumes and distribution to local markets, tanker trucks with capacities of up to 30 tons are generally used. Where inland waterborne shipment through rivers and canals is possible, methanol can be transported by barges which typically contain some 1250 tons (10 000 barrels) of methanol. This is the largest inland transportation method, and is especially adapted to deliver methanol to large consumers and inland methanol hubs for regional redistribution [166]. Another means of transporting large quantities of liquids, and one which is also used extensively for oil, natural gas and their products, is via pipelines. At present, methanol pipelines are only viable in regions where major methanol producers and users are concentrated in close proximity, such as on the Texas Gulf Coast between Houston and Beaumont. For long-distance transportation, the volumes of methanol to be shipped are generally insufficient to justify the high investments needed to build a pipeline. In the future, however, if methanol has to be increasingly used as a fuel, the much larger amounts of methanol to be moved overland will improve the economics and make transportation through pipelines not only viable but also indispensable. Technically, transporting methanol through pipelines does not pose any problems, as has been demonstrated successfully in two test runs conducted in Canada. One demonstration used the Trans Mountain crude oil pipeline running from Edmonton, Alberta to Barnaby, British Columbia over a distance of 1146 km; the other involved the Cochin pipeline, primarily used for LPG, over a distance of nearly 3000 km [167]. In both cases the quantity of methanol shipped was the same (4000 tons), and the quality of the delivered product was well suited for fuel applications. When methanol is produced in remote locations where cheap natural gas is available, it is shipped throughout the world by dedicated methanol ocean tankers which range in size from 15 000 to almost 100000 dead weight tons (DWT) in the case of the latest super tanker used by Methanex (Fig. 11.11) [134, 168], one of the world leaders in methanol production. When transported in such large vessels, the costs of shipping methanol will become similar and ultimately equal

Methanol Storage

to that of crude oil. Once delivered, methanol can be easily stored in large quantities, much like petroleum and its products, in tanks with capacities exceeding 12 000 tons, Such tanks can be constructed from a variety of materials, including carbon steel and stainless steel, which are compatible with methanol.

Methanol Price

Since 1975, the average wholesale price for methanol has been around $175 t-1, but has fluctuated roughly between $100 and $275 t-1 (Fig. 11.12). As with any other commodity, methanol is subject to fluctuations depending on offer and demand. The high prices experienced in 1994-1995, which reached more than $350 t-1 for example, were due to an increase in demand for major methanol derivatives such as MTBE, formaldehyde and acetic acid, coupled with production problems at methanol plants. However, with increased capacity and competition, as well as concerns about the use of MTBE as a gasoline additive, prices decreased rapidly. In recent years, high natural gas prices - especially in North America -have driven the price of methanol (which is mainly produced from natural gas) to higher levels. As methanol production in North America is gradually phased out, new methanol production facilities are being constructed in regions rich in natural gas but far from main consuming centers, such as the Middle-East. The construction of extremely efficient mega-methanol plants with very low production costs in these parts of the world will allow the price of methanol to remain at a relatively low level as long as sufficient natural gas reserves are available. The production cost for methanol in mega-methanol plants has been estimated to be well below $100 t-1 (equal to less than £8.5 per liter, or £30 per gallon)

Methanol Cost
Figure 11.12 Historic methanol prices. (Source: Methanol Institute, Methanex and Chemical Week.)

[132]. Even considering its relatively lower energy content (half that of gasoline), methanol will then be quite competitive with gasoline and diesel fuels. At present oil prices of $50 to $75, a liter of crude oil costs already between <i31 and <i47 (from $1.2 to $1.8 a gallon), without including costs of further processing in refineries to create a suitable fuel from the raw material. Methanol production from feedstocks other than natural gas (in particular coal) are generally higher because of the added cost of generating and purifying the syn-gas necessary for the methanol synthesis. In regions rich in coal, such as United States or China, the production of methanol from coal on a large scale would however bring the costs down, providing an alternative domestic route to methanol.

The cost of producing methanol from sources other than fossil fuels and, most importantly, from the reaction of CO2 with hydrogen, is still difficult to evaluate with precision at this stage. As with any other synthetic material or fuel, the price of methanol from alternative routes is, however, expected to be more costly than existing pathway via fossil fuels. It is much more difficult and energy-intensive to manufacture a convenient fuel that is not directly derived from natural sources. In many ways, fossil fuels should be considered as a gift from nature, which have allowed mankind to reach unprecedented levels of development. They served us well, but now - due to their finite nature - must be replaced by more sustainable sources of energy.

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Responses

  • Roberto
    Is methanol available at petrol stations?
    9 years ago
  • Renata
    What is the price for methanol in the united states?
    9 years ago
  • selamawit
    Which states have methanol stations?
    9 years ago
  • veijo
    How to distribute methanol?
    3 years ago
  • anselma
    How can we transport methanol?
    2 years ago
  • Aki Virrankoski
    How much does methanol cost china?
    17 days ago

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