Methanol as a fuel for internal combustion engines

Sebastian Verhelst, James WG Turner, Louis Sileghem, Jeroen Vancoillie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

188 Scopus citations

Abstract

Transportation of people and goods largely relies on the use of fossil hydrocarbons, contributing to global warming and problems with local air quality. There are a number of alternatives to fossil fuels that can avoid a net carbon emission and can also decrease pollutant emissions. However, many have significant difficulty in competing with fossil fuels due to either limited availability, limited energy density, high cost, or a combination of these. Methanol (CH3OH) is one of these alternatives, which was demonstrated in large fleet trials during the 1980s and 1990s, and is currently again being introduced in various places and applications. It can be produced from fossil fuels, but also from biomass and from renewable energy sources in carbon capture and utilization schemes. It can be used in pure form or as a blend component, in internal combustion engines (ICEs) or in direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs). These features added to the fact it is a liquid fuel, making it an efficient way of storing and distributing energy, make it stand out as one of the most attractive scalable alternatives. This review focuses on the use of methanol as a pure fuel or blend component for ICEs. First, we introduce methanol historically, briefly introduce the various methods for its production, and summarize health and safety of using methanol as a fuel. Then, we focus on its use as a fuel for ICEs. The current data on the physical and chemical properties relevant for ICEs are reviewed, highlighting the differences with fuels such as ethanol and gasoline. These are then related to the research reported on the behaviour of methanol and methanol blends in spark ignition and compression ignition engines. Many of the properties of methanol that are significantly different from those of for example gasoline (such as its high heat of vaporization) lead to advantages as well as challenges. Both are extensively discussed. Methanol's performance, in terms of power output, peak and part load efficiency, and emissions formation is summarized, for so-called flex-fuel engines as well as for dedicated engines. We also briefly touch upon engine hardware changes and material compatibility. Methanol fuel reforming using engine waste heat is discussed, as a potential route towards further increases in efficiency and decreases in emissions. Next to the experimental work, research efforts into modelling the behaviour of methanol as a fuel are also reviewed, including mixture formation, normal and abnormal combustion. Methanol's properties such as high latent heat, fast burning velocity, high knock-resistance and no carbon-to-carbon bonds are shown to leverage engine technology developments such as increased compression ratios, downsizing and dilution; enabling much increased engine efficiencies. Finally, we point out the current gaps in knowledge to indicate which areas future research should be directed at.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-88
Number of pages46
JournalProgress in Energy and Combustion Science
Volume70
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Chemical Engineering(all)
  • Fuel Technology

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