The alternative car you didn't know about

A huge focus in the fight against climate change is getting the world to drive vehicles that don’t rely on fossil fuels.

The best-known alternative is the purely electric car, which uses a charged battery for power and produces absolutely no emissions when driving. Fuel cell cars that run on hydrogen and emit only water vapor during operation have also received a lot of attention.

 

How do methanol-fueled cars work?

Multiple systems exist for powering cars with methanol.

One is for cars to use methanol in internal combustion engines (ICEs), which are what you’ll find in vehicles powered by diesel and gasoline. In fact, there are cars capable of running on methanol and gas either as a blend or interchangeably. When used in this way, methanol produces significantly lower emissions than fossil fuels. One methanol-powered car producer says their testing shows up to a 70% reduction in harmful emissions from methanol-powered cars as opposed to those using conventional fuels.

This use of methanol can also be utilized in electric hybrids that use both ICBs and large electric batteries, similar to the popular Toyota Prius. There are a variety of ways hybrid vehicles work, but the basic idea behind them all is to make cars go farther using less fuel thanks to the electric power stored in the battery. The benefit of methanol hybrids is that the fuel being used is less harmful to the environment when burned than gas or diesel.

A third way to use methanol as an automotive power source is an innovation by Roland Grumpert, who helped create the famous Audi Quattro.

Grumpert’s cars utilize the fact that methanol contains hydrogen. In Grumpert’s experimental vehicles, there’s a system that separates hydrogen from a methanol/water mixture, and that hydrogen is then split by fuel cell technology, which creates electricity that feeds a motor. Below speeds of 130 kilometers per hour (kph), the fuel cells produce enough electricity to power the car, and excess electricity charges a battery that’s similar to what you’d find in a hybrid or fully electric car, just smaller. At speeds over 130 kph, the battery kicks in to supplement the power produced by the fuel cells.

 

Another positive of methanol

Along with producing fewer emissions, another upside of methanol is that it’s a liquid at normal levels of pressure and temperature and could be put in cars via the pump systems that already exist at gas stations around the world with relatively slight alterations. This means there wouldn’t be the huge upfront investment in infrastructure needed to make a switch to fully electric cars or fuel cell cars that can only use pure hydrogen (which has to be kept under extremely high pressure) possible.

 

Are there disadvantages to methanol?

The biggest downside to methanol is that it has to be created through a process that requires energy, and that energy is not always produced in environmentally friendly ways. Currently, China uses a lot of methanol for fuel, but they’re generating it using power from coal, which means the higher demand for methanol goes, the more coal needs to be burned to make it.

Though there are businesses who create „green“ methanol made with renewable power sources, there would need to be a drastic increase in this sector to meet the worldwide demand for automotive fuel. That increase would, in turn, mean the available supply of renewable energy would need to go way up.

Methanol cars out there today

The biggest player in the methanol-fueled car industry right now is Chinese automotive giant Geely, which owns Volvo. It has been researching and developing methanol-fueled cars for over a decade, and the cars‘ popularity has steadily increased in China. 

In 2015, Geely invested in an Icelandic company producing green methanol and started testing its methanol-fueled cars there. The company reported the tests were a huge success. Drivers reported virtually no differences in performance between methanol-powered and conventional cars.

In spring of 2022, Geely started testing vehicles running on green methanol in Denmark using fuel produced by a program at the University of Aalborg.

As we mentioned before, former Audi engineer Grumpert is also in the methanol-powered car game. Currently, his company offers a sports car called the Nathalie priced at around €460,000. However, he has made attempts to work with the German government on wider applications of his technology, but he hasn’t had much success so far.

 

Vocabulary

climate change – Klimawandel

is getting – wird zunehmend

fossil fuels – fossile Brennstoffe

charged battery – geladene Batterie

fuel cells – Brennstoffzellen

hydrogen – Wasserstoff

emit sth. – etwas emittieren, abgeben

water vapor – Wasserdampf

unlike – entgegen

current – derzeitig

charging methods – Auflademethoden

gasoline – Benzin

far safer – weitaus sicherer

internal combustion engine – Verbrennungsmotor

capable of – fähig zu

blend – Mischung

interchangeably – austauschbar

reduction in  – Verringerung an

emissions – Abgase

harmful – schädlich

as opposed to – im Gegensatz zu

conventional fuels – konventionelle Brennstoffe

utilize – genutzt, verwendet werden

similar to – vergleichbar mit

go farther – fahren weiter

less harmful to – weniger schädlich für

fuel cell technology – Brennstoffzelltechnologie

excess – überschüssig

along with – zusammen mit

upside – Vorteil

gas station – Tankstelle

relatively slight alterations – relativ geringe Anpassungen

huge upfront investment – riesige im Vorfeld zu leistende Investition

downside to – Kehrseite von

require – erfordern

environmentally friendly – umweltfreundlich

coal – Kohle

though – obwohl

renewable power sources – erneuerbare Energiequellen

increase – Anstieg

meet worldwide demand – der weltweiten Nachfrage gerecht werden

decade – Jahrzehnt

huge success – riesiger Erfolg

virtually – praktisch, nahezu

former – ehemaliger

wider applications – weitere Anwendungsbereiche

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