Methanol for Biodiesel
By Rick Da Tech
Methanol, CH3OH is the simplest form of alcohol. It is called wood grain alcohol, wood alcohol, methyl alcohol and other names. It is also the best alcohol for making biodiesel. Methanex Corp. (a manufacturer and distributor of methanol) produced this Technical Information and Safe Handling Guide for Methanol. The guide contains excellent information on methanol straight from the source. The Methanol Institute, a global trade organization, published another valuable resource, the Methanol Safe Handling Manual.
Historically, methanol was derived by distilling wood. Currently, natural gas is used to make methanol because distilling it from wood is too expensive. Extremely high pressures and temperatures are needed to produce methanol from natural gas. These high temperatures and pressures make it impractical to produce at home.
Methanol is found naturally in the environment. Bacteria, living in anaerobic conditions, produce methanol as a waste stream. Other bacteria also living in anaerobic conditions use methanol as food and produce methane. These bacteria are the same bacteria found in septic tanks and anaerobic digesters used by farmers and wastewater treatment plants. Methanol also exists in the atmosphere, in trace amounts.
Methanol is a highly flammable poison. See the MSDS sheet for detailed information on the effects it can have on humans. Methanol is the most dangerous chemical we use in making biodiesel. Use extreme care when handling and storing methanol.
Where to buy Methanol
Methanol is available from chemical supply houses and distributors of racing fuels. It is also available in small quantities as a fuel deicer. In the US, racing methanol is 99% methanol and is probably the best source for our uses. Sometimes, dyes and lube are added to make the flames visible or to improve performance. Some of these additives may affect your ability to make biodiesel. It is best to avoid methanol with dye or lube added, but if you have no other source, then try it.
For small test batches, you can get methanol in small quantities from chemical supply houses on the internet, sometimes from drug stores, and from auto parts houses as fuel deicer.
The first safety rule of biodiesel is “DO NOT process biodiesel in your home or any structure that you can not live without.” It also applies to storing methanol. Most local fire codes limit how much gasoline or methanol you can store in your garage to two 5-gallon containers. Use only containers approved for flammable liquids (gas cans). Larger quantities, like drums, should be stored away from buildings in a shady location.
Methanol drums should have secondary containment or drip pan to catch spills. Spill containment can be an oversized plastic container placed under the drum. There are "overpacks" available that perform the task of spill containment. There any number of commercially available containments that catch spills, more economical are plastic tubs or trays from the farm store used for watering livestock. If you use the drum is on its side to take advantage of gravity, then use a drip pan to catch any drips out of the spigot.
Methanol drums should be electrically grounded to prevent sparks. There are grounding cables with big heavy clips that would work well for this. Don't use your plumbing or conduit as a ground. The proper way to ground your drum is with a copper stake driven into the ground next to it. If draining or pumping into a metal container, the drum should be bonded (electrically connected) to the container.
Keep your Methanol drums out of the rain to prevent dilution with water. If you must store your methanol exposed to rain, remove the pump when it is not in use and replace the bungs. Water can seep past the pump and contaminate your methanol. If you suspect water has gotten into your methanol, then you should test it for Methanol Purity.
If the drum is upright and water collects on the lid, the water can seep into the methanol past the bungs and ruin it. Cover your drum to prevent water and leaves from accumulating on top and rusting out the drum. Do not store your methanol drums sitting directly on the earth. If you do, the bottom can rust out where it touches the earth.
Empty methanol drums are more likely to explode than full drums. That is because there is very little thermal mass to absorb heat. An empty drum, when exposed to the intense heat of a fire, quickly heats up to 386°F (the autoignition temperature for methanol). When it reaches autoignition temperature, the methanol vapors inside the drum ignite causing it to rip apart at the seams. The lid is usually launched high into the air and can cut through plywood roofs like they were butter. The safe way to deal with an empty methanol drum is to return it right away and get your drum deposit back.
If you must store empty methanol drums for a short time, remove the bungs, rinse them out with water, and store them upside down, without the bungs, so they drain.
If you plan on keeping the drum and using it to store something other than methanol, be sure to paint over the methanol labeling when you put in a different liquid. Relabel the drum properly
Alternatives to Methanol
Making Biodiesel is defined chemically as a reaction between an alcohol and a long chain fatty acid. Methanol is the easiest to use. Ethanol or Ethyl Alcohol technically work, but with problems. It needs to be as pure (water free) as possible. Ethyl Alcohol containing as little as 2% water does not make biodiesel. If you have dry ethyl alcohol and make good biodiesel, the glycerin may not separate from the biodiesel without help.
A few other alcohols have been tried in University Laboratories, but never on full batch scales. Researchers might have been able to make a few hundred milliliters of biodiesel using isopropyl alcohol, but no one has been able to make a 30-gallon batch.
Methanex - World's largest supplier of methanol
The Methanol Institute - A global trade association