Fuels: methanol is back

Genoa – The new dual-fuel engine built at the Wartsila shipyards in Trieste, Sweden’s Summeth sustainable navigation research project, and ENI’s experiment on a fleet of Fiat 500s signal the return of the love affair between manufacturing and methanol. This long-neglected alcohol produced from natural gas or coal is now a candidate to be the fuel of the future.

Its story seemed to be over in the 1990s when the first attempts at methanol cars were abandoned because of the general lack of interest. But technological advances and the rise in oil prices since the 2014 collapse are bringing it back to the forefront. One litre of methanol produces half the energy that a litre of conventional fuel can produce, but also produces less carbon dioxide and contains no sulphur.

Compared to liquefied natural gas or LNG, another candidate to replace diesel on ships, it has lower energy content but also takes up less space because it is liquid at room temperature, while LNG requires tanks at very low temperatures.

“Several of our clients are interested in methanol as a fuel, both for land and marine use,” said Alessio Cuzzit, an engine expert at Wartsila. His company built the Stena Germanica, a 240-metre Swedish ferry, at its workshop in Trieste, and that ship’s engines can be powered both by diesel and methanol fuels. “The first engine of its kind,” Cuzzit said, “and it has created a certain interest in the world of marine transport”, and beyond, as well.

A new fuel that ENI has developed which consists of a mixture of 80% gasoline, 15% methanol and 5% bioethanol (ethyl alcohol derived from sugar cane), is ready for the car and motorcycle market. ENI is testing it on a small fleet of Fiat 500s. Sources in the sector reveal that “ENI is in negotiations with ministerial technicians to reduce taxation on this mixture and put it on the market soon at an advantageous price.”