Methanol is the simplest alcohol compound, comprised of one carbon atom, one oxygen atom and four hydrogen atoms (CH3OH). It is also referred to as wood alcohol, carbinol and methyl alcohol. It is poisonous, flammable and relatively volatile. It has no taste or color, but it does have a slight scent.
Methanol is used as a fuel and an antifreeze, and to make formaldehyde. It is also added to ethanol to make it unpalatable so that it avoids taxes on drinkable alcohol, as ethanol without a denaturant of some sort is consumable by humans. Methanol was first discovered in 1661, though it had been used without isolation by peoples as far back as the Egyptians in their embalming processes. The name comes from methy, meaning wine, and hyle, meaning trees.
Methanol is used as a fuel source by some, though its use is limited by its volatility. The main area in which one sees methanol being used is in many top-end racing engines. The vehicles in the Indy 500, for example, are all run on methanol. This methanol is usually produced using a fossil fuel as the synthesis gas, either natural gas or petroleum.
Many renewable energy advocates see methanol as an ideal fuel source, with distinct advantages over hydrogen. When methanol is made from materials such as wood, it is often called bioalcohol. The theoretical use of methanol as a widespread fuel source has given rise to a theory describing what is known as the methanol economy.
In the methanol economy, the common fuel is methanol, with non-renewable fuels having a minority share or being entirely unused. George Olah, a winner of the Nobel Prize, is a strong advocate of this path. Advocates point out that in contrast to hydrogen, methanol is relatively cheap to produce, can be manufactured with little or no waste, is efficient to store and can be made from sources other than fossil fuels. Also, while conversion to a hydrogen economy would require major changes in infrastructure, methanol could be phased in relatively easily because of its interoperability with fossil fuels. One can mix methanol with gasoline to produce hybrid fuels while making the shift in economy.
Unfortunately, methanol is very toxic and contains a number of hazards. It is less volatile than hydrogen, but also much heavier, which could allow contamination in the case of spills or tank leaks. A wide range of groups are constantly looking for new and innovative uses for methanol, and it seems apparent that it will have a role in the energy economy of the future. Whether that role is as the key player or a supporter to hydrogen or some other fuel source remains to be seen.