By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
But like many miracle fuels, methanol blends had a short run. According to Orr, other promoters entered the game with lower-quality formulas; reports about methanol eating up car engines showed up in the national press — planted, Orr suggests, by Arco's competitors; and the price of unleaded gas collapsed, making the blended fuel less attractive. The final nails in the coffin were hammered into place by the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which set new emissions standards that methanol couldn't meet.
Although the amendments did permit certain types of reformulated gasoline, Orr calls the legislation "a back-door mandate for MTBE" — methyl tertiary-butyl ether, an additive manufactured from methanol that can enhance octane and also happened to meet the new standards. Orr strongly objected to the process that gave MTBE favored status. His concerns weren't environmental; no one foresaw the havoc the new additive would soon cause. Yet the website for the trade group he started takes credit for being "the only environmental and scientific organization to question the fundamental science used by EPA to mandate MTBE."
"We knew if you had bad science on the front end, you're going to get unintended consequences at the back end," Orr says now. "And we were right."
During the 1990s the use of MTBE in oxygenated fuels soared. Domestic production of the stuff, which has been known to cause cancer in lab rats, reached over 300,000 barrels a day. By 2000 MTBE could be found in almost one third of the nation's gasoline. But state officials across the country began to discover that the highly soluble chemical was leaking from underground storage tanks and contaminating groundwater at record speed. Colorado was one of the first states to ban its use in gasoline; California, New York and dozens of other states soon followed.
The bans left refiners scrambling for another source of oxygenated fuel that met EPA standards. Midwest corn farmers and politicians, who'd been pushing corn-based ethanol (and its lucrative subsidies) for decades, found that their time had come. For Orr, the ascendancy of ethanol presented certain opportunities, too.
Starting in the early 1980s, Orr had set about developing patents for a variety of alcohol and gasoline blends that also included MMT, a manganese compound considered to be one of the best octane boosters available. One of the primary patents, which became the basis for launching Octane International and NAFF, is for unleaded gas, ethanol and MMT. From what Orr knew of the components involved, he was convinced that such a blend could increase octane, boost fuel economy and reduce harmful emissions better than conventional gas or a "gasohol" blend of gas and ethanol alone. Research on the use of MMT indicated that it reduced nitrogen oxide emissions and that its octane kick could add as much as 200,000 barrels a day to the gasoline pool, fuel otherwise lost through processing for octane enhancement.
But MMT is regarded with great suspicion in some quarters. Despite the fact that it was used in Canada for many years in almost all of the gas produced, auto manufacturers worry about its effect on their emission-control systems. Environmental groups have denounced its potential for neurological damage if inhaled in sufficient quantity, even though studies suggest it poses no health hazard at the minute levels used in gasoline. The Ethyl Corporation battled the EPA for years, trying to get a waiver to introduce a 32nd of a gram of MMT per gallon of unleaded gas; in 1995 a federal appeals court finally ruled in favor of Ethyl, saying the EPA had exceeded its authority.
Frank Cox, a former research chemist for the Department of Energy and one of the pioneers of alternative fuels, remembers testing MMT for the EPA decades ago and ending up with manganese oxide deposits gapping the spark plugs. "We got the octane boost," he recalls, "but we found that the oxides were retained in the combustion system. The EPA said, 'The hell with this, we're not going to allow it' — rather than cut down the concentrations or use alcohol as a scavenger of the oxides."
"The real problem is that the auto industry was very adamant that they didn't want it," adds Terry Higgins, executive director of refining for Hart Energy Consulting. Like Cox, Higgins testified for the defense at Orr's trial and believes that an ethanol-MMT-gas mixture such as the one Orr patented would be a boon to the American consumer. "There are hurdles to overcome, sure, in terms of approval and acceptance. But technologically, there are a lot of benefits — octane, cost savings and environmental benefits."
At the outset, Orr's quest didn't appear to be a difficult one. Ethyl had managed, through litigation, to win approval for the use of MMT in unleaded gas, and ethanol had become the winner by default in the race to develop oxygenated fuels that would reduce air pollution. Ethanol would surely reduce the combustion problems that occurred when MMT was put in unleaded gas. Given all that, how hard could it be to obtain an EPA waiver for the combined use of MMT and ethanol?
But the path ahead turned out to be more complicated than he could imagine. Simply to obtain the patent for his formula required reams of paperwork stretching from 1984 until 2000. There were side battles with other patent-seekers, including Ethyl, and a maze of bureaucracy and expensive tests to negotiate before he could even apply for the EPA waiver.