In today’s world of high gas and food prices, consumers and government alike are searching for ways to reduce the cost of everyday survival. With the cost of oil going up daily, alternative fuels seem to be a good idea, at least on paper. However, with the use of Methanol as an alternative to oil, there comes an added side effect. Food prices are on the rise, not only because of the cost of oil used to deliver the foods, but because of the rising cost of corn that is used as feed for livestock now being diverted to methanol production.
“Methanol was first discovered in 1823 by condensing gases from burning wood. Methanol has been used for more than 100 years as a solvent and as a chemical building block to make products such as plastics, plywood, and paint. It is also used directly in windshield-washer fluid and gas-line antifreeze, and as model airplane fuel” (XRT, n.d.). Methanol (CH3OH) is also called carbinol, wood alcohol, wood spirits, methylhydroxide, or monohydroxymethane among other names. Methanol is a colorless, flammable liquid with a mild alcoholic odor when pure. By itself, methanol has little effect on our water supply should a spill happen, and it has less harmful effects to humans when contact is made than petroleum based fuels (Fishbein, 1997).
Currently about one quarter of the United States corn production is being diverted to methanol production (Mufson, 2008). This corn now used for methanol was once inexpensive feed for cattle and poultry. With less availability of feed for livestock, the price goes up. When the price of feed goes up the price of meat goes up. It is a vicious circle that has no end. We may save a few pennies at the gas pumps by using methanol, but we end up paying more and more elsewhere.
Feed prices are getting so high that some producers are even closing down. Pilgrim’s Pride has closed its Silver City, NC plant putting 1100 people out of work (Smith, 2008). Pilgrim’s Pride is the country’s largest chicken producer. Not only does the cost of feed reflect in the price of chicken, but with the loss of Pilgrim’s Pride the supply of chicken will go down, ultimately causing the price of chicken to go up. “Diverting corn from livestock feed to ethanol production has also already been blamed for rising food prices in the U.S. and Mexico. And then there's the question of environmental pollution from increased fertilizer and pesticide use as farmers try to improve corn yields” (Kemsley, 2007).
The United States Government has a policy in place which offers generous subsidies to corn producers for the production of ethanol and methanol (Smith, 2008). It is understandable that farmers who once produced grain or soy for feed and food products are now switching to corn (Peterson, 2007). Thus, because of lowered supply of grain, prices again go up. The CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride stated “Based on current commodity futures prices the company’s total costs for corn and soybean meal in fiscal 2008 would be more than $1.3 billion higher than two years ago” (Smith, 2008).
The media is slowly catching on to the problem, as Chris Jansing stated on the NBC Nightly News : "Farmers are replacing wheat fields with corn to meet the demand for alternative fuel, but that means higher flour prices - and in one Pennsylvania pizza shop, more expensive pies” (Poor, 2008). Still we see media promoting methanol and ethanol as a way to save money and oil. “Methanol is promoted as a cleaner burning fuel. The “Think Green” campaigns push the corn based fuel as a more environmentally friendly alternative to petrolium based fuels.
Unfortunately, this is not true. Although ethanol was once promoted as a way to slow climate change, a study published in Science magazine Feb. 29 concluded that greenhouse-gas emissions from corn and even cellulosic ethanol “exceed or match those from fossil fuels and therefore produce no greenhouse benefits.” By encouraging an expansion of acreage, the study added, the use of U.S. cropland for ethanol could make climate conditions dramatically worse. And the runoff from increased use of fertilizers on expanded acreage would compound damage to waterways all the way to the Gulf of Mexico” (Rebmann, 2008). It is obvious that the use of methanol and ethanol has a wider impact than just the fuel we use to fill our tanks.
Methanol, called M85 at the gas pumps, is less efficient to use as a fuel in our vehicles as well. A tank of standard gasoline will take us about 70% farther than a tank of methanol(“Methanol (M85)”, 2000). Motors need to be modified to accept M85, and special oil additives must be used to protect the motors from the more corrosive, less lubricating methanol. No matter how one looks at it, the use of methanol is more expensive.
President Bush stated in his State of the Union Address that he had a plan to implement a ten year program to decrease our use of oil by 20%. To meet this goal we must increase our supply of alternative fuels to nearly five times the current target. Though other sources could be used to produce methanol, only corn distilleries are ready to take on the demand and meet the President’s goal within his timeframe (Peterson, 2007). Other sources such as switchgrass and hemp could free up the corn and allow prices to drop.
As of yet, methanol has other disadvantages. There is no nationwide network in place to distribute M85, and it is available at only a small percentage of gas pumps nationwide (“Methanol (M85)”, 2000). With so little opportunity to use M85, and so many vehicles being manufactured to use M85, it hardly seems worthwhile to deal with the rising food prices related to the manufacture of methanol. Additionally, the United States is one of the few countries that is capable of producing enough surplus corn and other fuel products that could be converted into methanol. Countries like China require that all of it’s crops be used as food, and nothing is left over for methanol production (Kemsley, 2007).
Another concern for the use of methanol is that when it is burned it gives off more formaldehyde than standard gasoline emissions. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen it is only because the levels are low in our atmosphere right now that this doesn’t seem to be a concern. As smog levels rise, and more and more formaldehyde is released into the atmosphere, the use of methanol will become more and more dangerous (Meadows, n.d.)
It is conceivable that we need not use corn itself for methanol. It may not be necessary to grow special crops for methanol. What could be possible would be to use the waste products from the corn, wheat and barley that we already produce; corn stalks, roots and straw. By using these products, the corn could be used for what it is intended, and the waste products from these plants will now be an additional income for our farmers.
Other technologies need to be explored in order to turn the economy around. Wind power is an endless source of energy, as is solar energy. To power automobiles the use of hydrogen through a process called electrolysis could be one solution. Electrolysis converts water to hydrogen right in the car by separating the hydrogen and oxygen in water by passing an electrical current through the water. Though many hobbyists are converting their cars to water power, or using hydrogen to supplement their gas powered vehicles, the EPA seems unwilling to allow the car companies to use the technology in production automobiles. Though they have allowed the use of hydrogen fuel cells in cars, fuel cell technology is not as environmentally friendly as using electrolysis to create hydrogen within the automobile. Though emissions from a fuel cell automobile might be clean, the production of the fuel cells creates CO2 at the factory, which is a byproduct of standard automobiles anyway. Electrolysis production of hydrogen within the automobile produces only one safe emission: water. The cost of converting a standard gasoline powered automobile into an hydrogen powered automobile can be as inexpensive as $150, and can be done with basic tools.
Something needs to be done. The United States is slipping into a depression that might be hard to recover from. Rising fuel prices lead to higher food prices. The oil companies do not seem to want to take responsibility for the rising cost of living, nor do they claim responsibility for the price of petroleum products being so high. Though they post record profits every quarter it is their contention that the high prices are due to supply and demand, and not the greed of the corporations. Methanol production leads to higher feed prices, which leads to higher food prices. It seems to be a lose – lose situation. The solution must lie in the cost of oil. With so many oil barons in the White House, it seems unlikely that any time soon we will see Government regulation of oil prices here in the United States. Regulation, however, is what needs to be done in order to get people moving again. Food would not cost as much to deliver, and farmers would produce food for what it was intended for: human consumption if the gas prices were held at a lower level. These are dark days, and will only get darker unless someone in power wakes up and sees the writing on the wall. Decision makers must be able to see the whole picture. They must be able to see the consequences of any decision they make, and any policy they put into place. Without this insight we are just robbing Peter to pay Paul, and nothing is solved. We must explore all solutions before acting on one alone. Methanol does not seem to be the solution we all need.
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Kemsley, J. (3 December, 2007). Methanol’s Allure. Retrieved on May 26, 2008 from http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/85/8549sci1.html
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Mufson, S. (30 April, 2008). Siphoning Off Corn to Fuel Our Cars. Washington Post. Retrieved on May 15, 2008 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/29/AR2008042903092.html?wpisrc=newsletter
Peterson, I. (2 February, 2007). Ethanol Juggernaut Diverts Corn From Food to Fuel. Retrieved on May 16, 2008 from http://blog.sciencenews.org/food/2007/02/ethanol_juggernaut_diverts_cor_1.html
Poor, J. (28 February, 2008). Media Finally Getting It: Ethanol Mandates a Dumb Idea. Retrieved on May 17, 2008 from http://newsbusters.org/blogs/jeff-poor/2008/02/28/media-finally-getting-it-ethanol-mandates-dumb-idea
Rebmann, M. (30 April, 2008). More on the Folly of Ethanol. Retrieved on May 17, 2008 from http://blog.freeny.org/?cat=18
Smith, F. (13 March, 2008). Ethanol’s Fallout – It Ain’t Just Chicken Feed. Retrieved on May 16, 2008 from http://www.openmarket.org/2008/03/13/ethanols-fallout-it-aint-just-chicken-feed/
XTR. Methanol, a Potentially Renewable Energy Source. (n.d.). (n.a.). Retrieved on May 27, 2008 from http://www.extraordinaryroadtrip.org/research-library/technology/methanol/history.asp