James Turner, head of advanced powertrain at Lotus Engineering, thinks methanol would solve the world's CO2 problems. By Jesse Crosse.

Since 1998, OEMs developing fuel cell technology have been going round in circles trying to find a practical means of fuelling their hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. Most are coming around to the idea that liquid hydrogen stored on a vehicle at not far off absolute zero is probably a non-starter and the most popular solution at the moment is compressed hydrogen.

But as the clock keeps ticking on fossil fuels, no one is able to give a clear idea of just how this hydrogen will be distributed and dispensed, or the where the money will come from to build the hydrogen filling stations to dispense it.

Ten years ago, both GM and DaimlerChrysler were looking hard at methanol, an alcohol fuel composed of hydrogen and carbon, but then abandoned the idea because extracting hydrogen from methanol on board the vehicle was proving unrealistic for a number of reasons.

Now, Jamie Turner, head of advanced powertrain development at Lotus Engineering, is asking why we don't keep the methanol and forget the fuel cells. Converting a Lotus car to run on methanol, claims Turner, would cost just €50 in production volume. To prove the point, Lotus has converted an Exige to do just that and at 270bhp it is the most powerful yet built by the company.

Turner has been inspired by the work of Dr George Olah, the Nobel prize winner and author of the book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy.

"If we accept that global warming is happening," says Turner, "the end game is probably hydrogen. But storage and distribution is a massive problem. It takes 30 to 40 percent of the energy it contains to liquefy it and if you compress it, the tanks are too heavy and the range poor." Turner believes the energy density of compressed hydrogen to be about 22 percent of gasoline which is a further drawback.

Converting filling stations to dispense methanol is entirely feasible from an economic point of view. Chemically, it is the simplest alcohol composed of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. It can be manufactured from natural gas (methane) which is not sustainable but a useful stopgap. It can also be made synthetically using hydrogen and CO2 which could be 'scrubbed' from the atmosphere. This means the carbon component of the synthetic methanol is 'recycled.' So, as long as the hydrogen is made in a sustainable way, the fuel is carbon neutral.

Turner and his colleague, Richard Pearson, believe that CO2 'scrubbing' plants are a feasible proposition. "A plant the size of two soccer pitches could deal with the CO2 output from a town of 16,000 people," explains Pearson. "You can extract a significant amount from the atmosphere like this; 1000cm3 of air will yield about 8cm3 of CO2." The idea is to co-locate hydrogen plants and CO2 scrubbing plants to produce synthesised methanol in real time.

Methanol does have downsides such as a corrosive nature; it is poisonous and burns with a clear flame. The corrosive aspect is taken care of by fitting a methanol compatible fuel system and seals to the car. In this case, Turner used racing fuel lines which are methanol tolerant. Filling stations need methanol tolerant dispensing equipment and underground storage tanks must be lined.

The clear flame issue is a problem for fire fighters. It is easily solved by using an additive and although the material caused problems for fuel cell developers, it has no effect on an internal combustion engine. Perhaps the most popular criticism of methanol is that it is poisonous. According to Turner one problem is that the body doesn't recognise methanol as an alien compound because it is present in some foodstuffs and so doesn't immediately cause vomiting. "But you would need to drink a lot of it for there to be a problem, along the lines of someone putting the fuel pump in their mouth. And when did you last hear of someone doing that with a gasoline or diesel pump?"

In contrast, if gasoline is swallowed and subsequently enters the respiratory system, it causes irreparable damage to the lungs and windpipe. Gasoline fires are also considerably more aggressive than those of methanol, a pool of which requires more energy to ignite than gasoline. According to Turner, the US EPA says that gasoline has never been assessed for safety. Were it to be today, would members of the public be allowed to dispense it into their vehicles so freely?

One popular concern regarding alcohol fuels is the cost relative to the energy they contain. Alcohol fuels, in common with LPG and hydrogen, contain less energy than gasoline returning a shorter range for a given volume of fuel. However, Turner is dismissive of these arguments saying, "does anyone really care what volume of fuel is in their car? It is the energy they have bought. With modern, 'smart', fuel pumps it would be an easy matter to calibrate them to dispense fuel by energy content rather than volume."

Turner's suggestion for bringing methanol to the market is to levy an energy tax. "If we could persuade people to do that we could have a tax based on carbon release," he explains. A 100 percent renewable fuel would be subject to a base energy tax "and then you could ramp up the level with gasoline and diesel at the highest level."

Turner also believes that resistance to the idea of a methanol as a serious alternative fuel may be on the wane. "We've put this idea up to as many eminent people as possible," Turner concludes. "And the only argument people have come up with against it is that methanol is poisonous. I like to think that we've thought through most of the things we are proposing very carefully."

Jesse Crosse