Meet the meth drinkers
WITH the average price of petrol in America once again threatening the politically sensitive level of $4 a gallon as tensions mount over Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, your correspondent has been puzzled by the deafening silence with which the current spike in pump prices has been greeted. Usually, when oil crosses the $100-a-barrel threshold and petrol prices soar, demands for drastic action fill the headlines. Given that this is election year, presidential candidates might have been expected to exploit the situation. There have been few such murmurings.
For sure, there have been the usual calls for the White House to dip into the country’s strategic oil reserves to slow rising prices at the pump—as happened last summer when more than 30m barrels were released to meet shortages caused by the Libyan uprising. The strategic reserve’s storage caverns in Texas and Louisiana are currently filled to the brim. So, do not be surprised if the administration releases some of the 700m barrels in storage should petrol prices remain stubbornly high during the summer months when people take to the roads for vacation and President Obama campaigns warily for re-election.
But America’s normally vociferous corn growers and ethanol producers have remained remarkably muted. At the least, one would have expected them to be clamoring for their precious E85 brew (85% ethanol and 15% petrol) to be re-instated in the government’s package of tax credits for alternative motor fuels. Since the expiration in January of their $6 billion-a-year subsidy, ethanol blenders have lost their 38 cents-a-gallon credit on E85, causing its price to rise to an average of $3.20 (compared with petrol’s $3.79). In California, where refineries have to use the highest grade of oil to meet the state’s stringent environmental standards, the average price of a gallon of regular petrol is currently $4.36.
Clearly, the ethanol lobby has been lying low since the outcry over the way subsidies for corn-based ethanol have pushed up food prices disastrously. Bioethanol—which was supposed to be a home-grown fuel that was cleaner than petrol—has also been heavily criticised for causing more, not less, environmental damage than even fossil fuels.
Ethanol producers are worried, too, about losing the additional tax credit they get for making ethanol from non-food biomass, such as switchgrass, corn stalks, wood chips and other cellulosic materials. Yet, even with a dollar-a-gallon subsidy, cellulosic ethanol remains wholly uncompetitive. Producers live in hope of a breakthrough that will one day make it commercially viable.
Such hopes are beginning to look increasingly forlorn. The alternative fuel that ethanol producers fear most, clean-burning methanol, is enjoying an unexpected resurgence—thanks to the vast supplies of natural gas discovered in shale deposits beneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas and Oklahoma. Even if the reserves turn out to be only half as extensive as initially thought, many liken the handful of states where shale-based natural gas is currently being tapped by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling to Saudi Arabia. Already, natural gas has fallen to its lowest price in a decade, and is expected to stay there for decades to come.
The usual way of making methanol is first to react methane, the main component of natural gas, with high-temperature steam in the presence of a nickel catalyst, to produce a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide known as “syngas”. A second catalyst—usually a blend of copper, zinc oxide and alumina—is then used to turn the syngas into methanol.
Because the process involves stripping off one of the methane molecule’s four hydrogen atoms that are tightly bonded to a central carbon atom, the process requires a good deal of energy. Even so, methanol has long been made commercially this way—without any taxpayer subsidies—for around a dollar a gallon. It can be bought on the spot market today for $1.13 a gallon. Modern catalysts, which eliminate the intermediate syngas stage, promise to make methanol even cheaper.
Methanol, the simplest of all alcohols, has a long history as a fuel for motor cars. It lost out to petrol in the early days of motoring because it packed only half the energy per unit volume (56,800 BTUs per gallon versus 114,100). All other things being equal, a car that gets 25mpg on petrol would get only 12.5mpg on methanol.
But all other things are not equal. Alcohols like methanol have higher octane ratings than petrol—typically 99 versus 87 for regular petrol. That means they can tolerate higher compression ratios without causing the air-fuel mixture in the cylinders to explode prematurely (“knock”) rather than burn smoothly. And the higher the compression ratio, the more energy stored in the fuel can be converted into useful work. In short, engines designed to take advantage of methanol’s octane rating produce more power from the same cubic capacity, and can be more efficient in fuel-economy terms.
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