China is betting big on another gas engine alternative: methanol cars

Today, the leading company producing methanol from carbon dioxide is Carbon Recycling International, an Icelandic company. Geely invested in CRI in 2015 and partnered to build the world’s largest CO2– a fuel plant in China. When operating, it can recycle 160,000 tons of CO2 emissions from steel mills each year.

The potential for clean production is what makes methanol desirable as a fuel. This is not only a more efficient way to use energy, but also a way to remove existing CO2 from the air. To achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, as China has promised, the country cannot put all its eggs in one basket, such as electric cars. Promoting the use of methanol fuel and clean methanol production could allow China to reach its goal sooner.

Can methanol get out of its dirty roots?

But the future is not all bright and green. Currently, most of China’s methanol is still produced by burning coal. In fact, the ability to power cars with coal instead of oil, which China doesn’t have much of, was the main reason the country pursued methanol in the first place. Today, the Chinese provinces that are leading experiments with methanol cars are also those that have abundant coal resources.

But as Bromberg says, unlike gas and diesel, at least methanol has potential to be green. Methanol production can still have a high carbon footprint today, just as most electric cars in China are still powered by coal-generated electricity. But there is a path to transition from coal-fired methanol to renewable-fired methanol.

“If that’s not the intent—if people aren’t going to pursue low-carbon methanol—you really don’t want to apply methanol at all,” Bromberg says.

Methanol fuel has other potential drawbacks. It has a lower energy density than gasoline or diesel, which requires larger and heavier fuel tanks or drivers may need to fill up more often. This also effectively prevents the use of methanol as an aircraft fuel.

Moreover, methanol is highly toxic by ingestion and moderately toxic by inhalation or when humans are exposed to it in large quantities. Potential harm was a major concern during the pilot program, although the researchers concluded that methanol proved no more toxic to participants than gas.

Apart from China, some other countries such as Germany and Denmark are also exploring the potential of methanol fuels. However, China is at least one step ahead of the rest – even if it remains a big question whether it will repeat its success in developing electric cars or follow the path of another country with a large auto industry.

In 1982, California offered subsidies to automakers to make over 900 cars on methanol in a pilot program. The Reagan administration even pushed for the Alternative Motor Fuels Act to promote the use of methanol. But a lack of advocacy and the falling price of gasoline prevented further exploration of methanol fuel, and pilot drivers, while generally satisfied with the performance of their cars, complained about the presence of methanol fuel and the lower mileage compared to cars on gas. California officially ended the use of methanol cars in 2005, and there have been no similar experiments in the US since then.