A standard Ford sedan modified to run on methanol fuel.
PHOTO: NEIL O'CONNOR
Over the past couple of years, ethyl alcohol—the clear, clean-burning liquid usually made from farm products—has been pretty much accepted as a viable substitute for our expensive (and in finite supply) petroleum-based fuels. However, ethanol isn't the only member of the alcohol "family" that can serve this purpose. There's another form of fluid energy—methanol—which not only does, under certain circumstances, cost less than either grain alcohol or gasoline, but also can be manufactured from virtually any source of biomass, including wood wastes and garbage!
An Urban Energy Alternative
Obviously enough, even though ethyl alcohol could be made on a large scale (then distributed locally as are petroleum products), it's more cost-effective—because of handling and transportation expenses—for a farmer to distill his or her own fuel from surplus and spoiled crops readily at hand. Unfortunately, methanol fuel (or wood alcohol, as it's sometimes referred to) doesn't easily lend itself to small-scale production. Therefore, industrial —rather than individual—manufacture of this type of alcohol is most practical (especially in light of the fact that the end product can be as much as 52% less expensive than farm-produced ethanol, even with local transportation costs considered).
What this means, of course, is that methyl alcohol can be to the urbanite what ethanol is to the farmer: a way out of the fuel crisis. And fortunately, there are people marketing methanol, right now, with just that notion in mind. One such individual is Charles Stone, president of Future Fuels of America.
Blending for the Better
The California entrepreneur's venture revolves around what he calls "Methanol X," a blend of pure methyl alcohol and several other volatiles. The production of the fuel is accomplished by breaking a hydrocarbon feedstock down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen (using a destructive distillation process), then forcing the gases to react in the presence of a catalyst—and under elevated temperatures and pressures—to form liquid methanol.
Once the "base" fuel is made, Stone's group adds a small percentage of higher grade alcohols and aromatics—along with a dash of diesel oil—to help the entire mixture vaporize more easily and provide some built-in lubrication.
Although the cost of the equipment necessary to manufacture methanol is greater than that needed to ferment and distill ethyl alcohol (at least on a smallscale level), the former fuel has several distinct advantages:
 Essentially any form of biomass (wood, grass, coal, municipal refuse, crop residues, etc.) can be used to manufacture methyl alcohol.
 The gasification process used to make the fuel is instantaneous. There is no fermentation period. Hence the plant always operates on a time-saving, continuous-feed basis.
 Because of the inexpensive raw materials used in its manufacture, pure methanol can cost less than its grain-based country cousin. (Even the "spiced up" Methanol X currently sells for 88¢ a gallon.)
 When synthesized, the methanol is in a nearly pure, anhydrous form. No additional treatment is needed to bring the liquid to 200-proof strength.
Needless to say, the use of methanol fuel would have some direct—and most likely beneficial—impact on our society. First and foremost—if production were handled properly—our urban solid-waste problem could be virtually eliminated. (Ideally, plants would be located in and around the cities, where the concentration of trash is the greatest and where transportation costs would be kept to an absolute minimum, thus maintaining a favorable BTU-in/BTU-out energy balance.) Additionally, the new influx of domestic liquid energy would supplement existing gasoline and ethanol supplies, reducing the need for imported fuels.
There Are Disadvantages
In all fairness, I must also present the other side of the methanol coin. The most obvious drawback with "wood spirit" is the fact that it has a relatively low heat value (about 80,000 BTU per gallon, compared with ethanol's 84,000 BTU and gasoline's 118,000), which translates into reduced mileage and performance if the engine isn't modified to best use the fuel. Equally significant is the fact that methyl alcohol can be corrosive to engine parts ... though not any more so than is a low-proof ethanol mix, according to Stone. "Wood alky" is highly toxic if taken internally, too, and even prolonged breathing of its fumes can be harmful to health, so the liquid must be handled with extreme care.
The Car of the Future ... Today
The researchers at Future Fuels have, over the past year and a half, been involved in testing and modifying automobiles to accept the inexpensive liquid source of energy. At present, Stone's group has already sold 200 units to such customers as the Bank of America and Pacific Telephone and is working on a third major fleet commitment.
The new Ford line that the California firm modifies and markets was a natural candidate for conversion to the use of the Methanol X blend, Stone contends, because many of the original factory components are already compatible with alcohol fuel. The FFA team does, however, use a variety of synthetic, methanol-resistant parts where necessary, and in most cases refits the vehicles with new fuel tanks, lines, and pumps to assure trouble-free operation.
Also, because of the low BTU—and high oxygen—content of methyl alcohol, Chuck Stone's people had to make internal carburetion changes in addition to increasing the engines' compression to an ideal-for-alcohol 12-to-1 ratio.
However, there's some bad news along with the good. Although Mr. Stone's converted 1981 Ford Motor Company products come with a complete factory warranty, his firm cannot—by federal law—sell any vehicles outside of California, except with written permission from the governor of the state to which the automobile is being "exported." (This is because the federal EPA has not yet approved methanol as a clean-burning fuel. Individual states may override this lack of decision—as California did—on the basis of "states' rights.")
In addition, though Future Fuels of America moves 1,500 gallons of Methanol X per day through six West Coast filling stations, the fuel centers could hardly be described as a complete network, and the only service available for the cars is that maintained by FFA-trained fleet mechanics.
Nevertheless, there's little doubt that Chuck Stone's fledgling fuel firm has taken a big step in the right direction. Now all we can do is hope that the "acid test" to which the new alcohol blend—and the machines that use it—is being subjected will convince "big buck" investors that alternative fuels do work... and open the door to energy-sensitive, reasonably priced transportation for the "little guy."