Since Monday, February 7, 2022, Africa's biggest producer of crude oil, Nigeria has experienced heightened pressure on the roads primarily due to long queues of vehicles conspicuously seen in petrol stations in Lagos state, Ogun state, Abuja, and other parts of the country.
This started when it was discovered that a batch of the fuel shipped into the country was contaminated.
On February 8, 2022, the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority (NMDPRA) confirmed that the methanol quantity in petrol is above Nigeria’s specification which has led to damage of several vehicles.
The oil-rich country depends entirely on imports to meet its domestic gasoline needs, largely because its refineries have produced little or no fuel over the past decade due to poor maintenance.
Methanol is a type of alcohol (CH3OH) made from alternative non-petroleum energy sources such as natural gas coal and biomass.
It’s a base material in acetic acid and formaldehyde and is used in building blocks for hundreds of everyday products, including plastics, paints, car parts, and construction materials.
Methanol has also been successfully used for extending gasoline supplies in many gasoline markets around the world.
Methanol is a clear, low viscosity liquid with a faintly sweet odour at low concentrations in air. Chemically, methanol is aliphatic alcohol containing about 50 wt % oxygen with physical properties consistent with other alcohols used as gasoline blending components.
Methanol has many fuel properties that make it cleaner burning in gasoline engines. Besides containing oxygen for cleaner fuel combustion, methanol also has a high-blending octane (a colourless flammable hydrocarbon of the alkane series present in petroleum spirit) for smoother burning, a lower boiling temperature for better fuel vapourisation in cold engine operation, the highest hydrogen to carbon ratio for lower carbon intensity fuel, and no sulphur contamination which can poison the vehicle’s catalytic converter.
These unique blending properties allow oil refiners or gasoline blenders to produce cleaner-burning gasoline that reduces vehicle emissions that are precursors to ozone and particulate matter (PM) in the ground-level atmosphere.
NMDPRA CEO, Farouk Ahmed in an interview explained that the maximum acceptable limit of methanol in gasoline across Europe is around two to three percent.
Ahmed said that the contaminated gasoline imported is higher than the limit — but did not provide further details about Nigeria’s specification for methanol in gasoline.
“The maximum that is the acceptable limit in Europe, for example, is about two to three percent, but this time around it was much higher than that two or three percent,” he said.
“If it was within the acceptable limit, nobody would have known something like this is happening.”
According to reports, the substandard petrol imported into Nigeria with 20% methanol content leads to the damage of a number of vehicles.
In the last few days, there have been reports of complaints from car users whose vehicles were damaged by the off-spec petrol, with many threatening legal actions.
Methanol is good for engines. It minimises engine knocks if mixed in fuel. It is often used as fuel in racing as it burns cooler and slower than gasoline and is safer in the event of a fuel-fed fire.
A methanol fire can be doused with water. A gasoline fire cannot and as methanol is even cheaper to produce than ethanol, it makes economic sense to blend it in gasoline.
Methanol can be dangerous to cars if a high percentage is mixed into fuel. Such will lower the energy density of the fuel to the point where hard starting and stalling becomes an issue for some cars.
A higher concern is that methanol is corrosive to aluminum components, gaskets, and rubber hoses.
It is very unsafe when it is uncontrolled and when unregulated can cause additional wear and damage over time to sensitive gaskets and hoses in the fuel system.
So not methanol by itself is not a problem. It is the wrong blending that is the problem.