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Methanol Facts

Fueling the BPA/Utility Alpha and Beta Units
The first fuel cell systems tested under the BPA/utility fuel cell development partnership use methanol as a fuel source. To learn more about methanol, read on ...

What is Methanol?
Methanol is a liquid chemical commonly known as wood alcohol. It is the simplest alcohol, containing one carbon atom. It is colorless, volatile, and has a very faint odor. Methanol is hygroscopic and totally miscible with water.

Where does Methanol Come From?
Derived usually from natural gas feedstock which is then reformed to carbon oxides and hydrogen. The resulting "synthesis gas" is circulated under pressure and moderate temperature through a conversion catalyst to form crude methanol. Distillation yields high purity methanol.

How Safe is Methanol?
Methanol is safer to handle and kinder to the environment than hydrocarbon fuels. Here are some comparative facts:
  • Toxicity:
    Methanol, like most fuels and cleaner agents, is considered toxic and hazardous. However, a 1991 Department of Energy (DOE) study concluded that methanol is much less toxic to humans than gasoline. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards rates methanol at only seven on a 1-100 scale for chronic toxicity. It is poisonous if swallowed, but it is not carcinogenic, as is the benzine in gasoline. It is not considered to pose any threat to people like service station attendants who might handle it on a regular basis.
  • Environmental Impact:
    Methanol mixes readily with water and quickly degrades in the environment. Gasoline, a hydrocarbon, does not. DOE has concluded that environmental hazards of gasoline releases are greater and longer lasting than those of methane releases. In plant and animal studies, methanol has proved essentially non-toxic. Petroleum fuels like gasoline are very toxic to aquatic life.
  • Fire Danger:
    Methanol poses less fire risk than hydrocarbon fuels, for several reasons. In room temperature air, methanol's lower flammability limit (LFL) is 6 percent, compared to one and four-tenths percent for gasoline. Methanol will not ignite at temperatures below 54 degrees, while gasoline will ignite well below freezing. And because methanol vapor is less dense than gasoline vapor, it does not collect near the floor where ignition is most likely. When methanol does ignite, it is easier to control because it radiates significantly less heat than a gasoline blaze.

How is Methanol Being Used?
Fuel cell technology is advancing rapidly, with methanol as the practical fuel choice for home and automotive power generation. Fuel cells generate clean electricity by mixing hydrogen with oxygen from the air. Methanol is an economic way to transport and store that hydrogen.

What are the Advantages of Methanol?
  • It does not contribute to air pollution.
  • It is less toxic to plants and animals than conventional gasoline or diesel.
  • It is biodegradable.
  • It is less flammable and safer to handle than gasoline.
  • It can be made from renewable resources.

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