Nigeria: what is methanol and how it affects fuel and cars

Although mixing methanol with fuel can minimize engine knock, a high volume of additive can also cause damage.

Nigerian fuel retailer, MRS Oil Nigeria, sparked controversy on Wednesday by announcing that the petrol it received from Litasco, the Swiss trading arm of Russia’s Lukoil, was substandard.

MRS said it received the oil through the Nigerian National Oil Company (NNPC) at the end of January and 37,000 tons were delivered to several retailers in the country.

“NNPC, through its trading arm Duke Oil, provided a shipment of PMS (gasoline) purchased from international trader Litasco and delivered it with Motor Tanker (MT) Nord Gainer,” MRS said in a statement.

The company explained that after delivery to the tank, the product was observed to appear cloudy and dark. Analysis of the petroleum product revealed that the PMS released by MT Nord Gainer contained 20% methanol.

Checks carried out by PREMIUM TIMES have shown that the world average for the methanol content of gasoline is between 2% and 3%.

Nigerians have started to face another season of fuel shortages as authorities said they were working on several options in a bid to address the substandard fuel problem which has seen national reserve coverage drop by 10 days.

Methanol and uses

Methanol is a blending component for gasoline that is made from alternative non-petroleum energy sources such as natural gas, coal, and biomass. It is a versatile fuel used as a blending component in fuels or for the production of fuel components. It is in itself considered a fuel for electric vehicles.

According to a publication by the Methanol Institute, methanol has been commercially blended into gasoline at various times and places since the late 1970s, or for over thirty years of commercial and research experience. Although methanol has been widely manufactured for use in chemical production, it has also been used successfully to expand gasoline supplies in many markets around the world.

For conventional engines, the use of methanol is simple when it is converted into a gasoline component called methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) or a diesel component called fatty acid methyl esters (FAME). High concentration methanol blends, such as 85% methanol in gasoline, can be used in specialty automobiles such as flexible fuel vehicles.

In China, methanol is used in various blends, and in some markets a blend of gasoline and methanol is considered. In Europe and North America, the mixture of methanol in gasoline is limited to a few percentages, often less than 5%.

If methanol is used at high blend rates in gasoline, alcohol compatible materials in vehicles are required to maintain stability and safety.

The properties of methanol allow automakers to design high-efficiency engines to compensate for methanol’s low energy density. In situations where methanol is used as an automotive fuel with higher blending rates or as a neat fuel, technical adjustments to the existing fuel infrastructure are required.

Standards and damages

Global demand for methanol grew from 61 to 125 million metric tons from 2012 to 2016, even though sustainable renewable methanol production capacity is only less than 1 million tons per year. Growth should be driven by Chinese demand.

Most of the current methanol standards related to the automotive sector are available in the United States, Italy, Israel, China and India. In Europe, for example, a maximum volume of 3% methanol is allowed to be blended into gasoline under the Fuel Quality Directive and the CEN standard.

In the United States, there are limits on methanol content and up to 2.75% with an equal volume of butanol, or higher alcohol content, is allowed. Similarly, standards specifying methanol-fuel blends are currently being updated by the working group, as are specifications for pure methanol being promoted.

Like all transportation fuels, methanol is toxic and should not be ingested. Car engines can indeed be destroyed if the ethanol content of the fuel used is too high.

To be sure, the methanol blend increases the octane rating of gasoline and minimizes engine knock, which is caused by excessive heat or pressure. Thus, the methanol content is essentially good for the engine, if applied in moderation.

But when the mixture comes in high percentage, it lowers the energy density of the fuel to the point where hard starting becomes problematic. This could cause a pressure spike and lead to structural failure or even an explosion. Methanol is very corrosive to aluminum components, and an unregulated amount of gasoline contents can damage vital parts of an automobile like gaskets and rubber hoses.

A plausible reason for the inclusion of a high percentage of methanol in gasoline is its relatively cheaper cost, especially when compared to ethanol and gasoline. An article published in 2021 claimed that methanol is the cheapest alternative fuel in India. The document claimed that the calorific value of ethanol was higher than that of methanol, so that it would take 1.28 liters of methanol to produce as much energy as one liter of ethanol.

Calorific value refers to the energy contained in a fuel or food, determined by measuring the heat produced by the complete combustion of a specified amount of the fuel or food.

In recent days, substandard gasoline imported into Nigeria, containing 20% ​​methanol, has reportedly damaged a number of vehicles. In recent days there have been reports of complaints from motorists whose vehicles have been damaged by off-spec gasoline, with numerous threats of legal action.

On Wednesday, amid litigation claims by Nigerians whose vehicles were damaged by the substandard fuel, Timipre Sylva said the Nigerian government would carry out an assessment of the damaged vehicles.

Mr Sylva added that there will be a “major investigation” into the circulation of the dangerous amount of methanol in gasoline imported into the country.