Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 17, 2013

Harley Luplow: New technology, fuel and 'old way'

Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — “Alternative View of Change” is the subtitle of the acclaimed television series Connections.

In the not too distant future I think this will be an apt way to explain how we ultimately shift from our current use of ethanol-blended gasoline to a more efficient, economical and environmentally-friendly use of M85 fuel, a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent methanol.

The TV show Connections posited that current technological developments and their commercial uses do not follow a linear path. Rather, we enjoy many modern day conveniences because of a mix or web of interconnected events and discoveries motivated by greed, curiosity, self preservation, necessity, or something else entirely.

Three and a half years ago I wrote a column about the virtues of M85 and how it could bolster the economy of Michigan due to our abundant natural gas resources combined with the impending commercialization of locally invented technologies that convert our natural gas into methanol.

Last month the Wall Street Journal published an article “A Chemistry Breakthrough That Could Fuel a Revolution: Now methanol can be made from natural gas and captured carbon dioxide.” The article reports that the “methanol-conversion process can be a game changer, because shale gas can immediately be put to use as a liquid transportation fuel.”

I asked Nathan Pawlak his thoughts on this breakthrough announcement. Mr. Pawlak, founder of Stranded Solutions LLC in Charlevoix, and a client of mine, tells me that “The mathematical limitation here is that converting CO2 (an exhaust) into methanol (a fuel) means adding energy back into the mix. Methane does this... but there's nothing new here in this article. I've seen CO2–to-methanol technologies that simply use more energy... and that's the catch.”

Mr. Pawlak is an inventor of nine patents on methanol-conversion. Three of Mr. Pawlak’s patents issued in 2012 recently received the highest quality score in an independent IP study commissioned by Crain’s to evaluate Michigan’s high-value patents – patents that matter in specific industries and that can be traced to disruptive technology advancements.

Stranded Solutions LLC is one of two northern Michigan companies currently raising money via the new securities and exchange commission’s (SEC) section 506(c) offering rules that allow for general advertising and the subject of last month’s column.

What is methanol and why haven’t we used it before?

Methanol has been around for a long time and was an original fuel for early automobiles because it is more powerful and comparatively safer than gasoline. Once the automobile became popular it was easier and cheaper at the time to use gasoline. But for the lack of technology to support the commercial production of methanol from natural gas, we may have all driven on methanol the past hundred years.

With the recent pronouncements by experts that continued federal government support and mandates for ethanol blended gasoline is counter-productive, one wonders why we do not go back to the future and use the methanol we can make locally from stranded and flared natural gas, which is otherwise going to waste. I believe it is the corn-ethanol lobbyist that pushed us in the wrong direction. Studies now show that environmentally sensitive lands have been put into corn production and food costs have increased due to competition for corn to feed livestock and produce by-products such as corn syrup.

Our beloved EPA proudly supports the use of M85 due to its potential to lower nitrogen oxide emissions. The fact that it forms no particulate matter when combusted and this lean combustion results in lower emissions and higher energy efficiency.

This year Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla/) introduced the Open Fuel Standard Act (H.R. 2493) which would require 30 percent of new automobiles in 2015, 50 percent in 2016, and 50 percent in each subsequent year, to operate on non-petroleum fuels such as methanol derived from natural gas.

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Sometimes the old ways are the best ways…especially with new technology leading our way.