29 Oct 2018 19:57 IST

What methanol production means for India

Green mobility will get a boost when methanol from coal is blended with petrol in a few years

You may have read in the news about ‘ethanol blending’ in petrol for vehicles. While the pace of implementation of such blending has been really slow in India, countries such as Brazil have been practising this in a big way for over two decades.

Ethanol blending has not panned out as planned in India for many reasons. The most important is that ethanol makers prefer to supply to liquor producers, as they pay more. Besides, ethanol is (mainly) an agricultural product and its feedstock competes with agricultural crops. You might have heard that, some years ago, when the US tried to produce ethanol in large quantities, a lot of agricultural land was diverted from regular crops such as soya bean and corn, resulting in a spike in food prices. The government had to back down after this.

You probably hear a lot about e-vehicles, too, which is the mobility of the future. Give it another 15-20 years and people will not need to buy petrol or diesel-powered vehicles, except for the heck of it, to keep in a collection. Technology is rapidly coming up with answers to the chief problems that e-mobility faces today, such as fast charging and the distance a vehicle can travel before it needs to recharge.

But that still involves waiting more than a decade.

Something in between

There is another option, apart from ethanol and e-mobility, that is not often mentioned. It is a wonder fuel — it could be a step toward green mobility, till we get to e-mobility. Or, it could even ride alongside e-mobility. It is a chemical that all of you have come across in your high-school chemistry text-books: methanol.

Unlike ethanol, methanol can be produced from anything organic, including city waste. Decaying organic matter lets out a gas called methane. Take methane, add hydrogen and carbon monoxide, wave a wand (in a manner of speaking), and you get methanol. Well, yes, I am oversimplifying the process but it is true that producing methanol is not difficult.

Turns out methanol can be put into our petrol tanks and the engines will run just as well. Ethanol, in contrast, can be mixed only in limited quantities. Methanol blending can go as high as 85 per cent.

Methanol is important to India for yet another reason — it can be produced from coal. India has vast reserves of coal — 315 billion tonnes, and we produce around 600 million tonnes every year, which means the reserves can feed India for well over a thousand years at the current rate of production (but make no mistake, by burning coal we are killing ourselves).

Scientific backing

How do we make use of the biggest resource available in our country without mucking up the globe? Use the coal to produce methanol, put that in car and truck tanks, and we can heave a sigh of relief. It is useful to know that India has made a small beginning toward this. Coal India Ltd, the government-owned coal producer, has announced plans to set up a factory that will produce 676,000 tonnes of methanol using its coal. A good first step.

But there is, as always, a flip-side to everything. A few things would need to be attended to before our fuel tanks slosh with methanol. First of all, we will need a much larger fuel tank, or, if we use the existing tanks, the vehicle’s range will halve — we will need to fuel up twice as often.

Second, methanol produces dangerous nitrous oxides and formaldehyde; we need to develop a way to tackle these pollutants. Third, methanol burns without a flame — you wouldn’t know it is burning till the heat touches you. Thankfully, unlike petrol, methanol just burns but doesn’t explode, giving you enough time to get to safety.

These are some technological challenges but, when scientists get to work, what can they not solve? In a recent book called Dawn of the Solar Age: An End to Global Warming and to Fear, journalist Prem Shankar Jha gives a detailed description of how, in 1973, just after oil prices spiked (called ‘the first oil shock’; the second was in 1979), two scientists — Thomas Reed and RM Lerner — of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, wrote a paper in the prestigious Science magazine titled Methanol: A versatile fuel for immediate use. The New York Times later picked up the article and the two researchers got a private grant of $100,000 to test methanol as a blending fuel for petrol.

But just when they were going to test it on 200 privately-owned cars, MIT cancelled the project. Guess why? The institute wanted to set up an ‘energy research laboratory’ and was short of cash. Two companies chipped in, with $500,000 each — oil company Exxon and car-maker Ford. Methanol was buried.

If all goes well

If that had not happened, we would probably be living on a more benign planet and the spectre of climate change and its consequences would not be looming over us.

Prem Shankar Jha also narrates an incident that supposedly took place in the 1963 Indianapolis 500 motor race event, in which two famous motor racers were killed in a collision, but a third car, which happened to be running on methanol, escaped. But that is pure fiction. There is no record of any accident in the 1963 Indianapolis 500 event, though there was one in the 1973 event. Two famous racers died in separate accidents, but there is no record of a third one who survived as his car ran on methanol. Lesson from the anecdote? Beware of over-enthusiastic backers!

Anyway, if all goes well with Coal India’s plans, India will be producing methanol and blending it in vehicle tanks in a few years. When that happens, it will be a milestone crossed in green mobility.