Methanol Vs. Ethanol: What Are The Major Differences?

Stacy Randall
by Stacy Randall

There are several different types of alcohol, and each has a distinct purpose. Though methanol and ethanol are both alcohols, they have very different uses. When determining which alcohol to use, it is best to do extensive research to prevent injury.

Methanol is alcohol used to create fuel, solvents, and antifreeze. Conversely, people use ethanol as a key ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Each alcohol has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to cost, environmental impact, and risks.

What Is Methanol?

Methanol is a type of alcohol that is not suitable for drinking. It is known as wood alcohol or methyl alcohol, and you can find it in fuel, solvents, and antifreeze. Methanol is a colorless liquid that can be volatile and flammable, and poisonous if consumed.

Methanol also plays a part in producing a variety of other chemicals like acetic acid. Small amounts of methanol occur naturally in fruits and vegetables as part of their metabolic process.

What Is Ethanol?

Ethanol is a liquid alcohol that is clear and colorless. It is also referred to as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol. It is a key ingredient in beer, wine, and brandy.

Because ethanol dissolves easily in water and other organic compounds, you can find it in various other products. Ethanol is in personal care and beauty products, paints, varnishes, and fuel. This alcohol is a natural byproduct of plant fermentation and results from the hydration of ethylene.

Main Differences Between Methanol and Ethanol

In the chart below, you can find the main differences between methanol and ethanol.

Methanol vs. Ethanol

Methanol is a type of alcohol with a carbon bond in its methyl group.Ethanol is a type of alcohol that has a carbon skeleton consisting of an ethyl ring.
Methanol has a higher acidity than liquids.Compared with water, ethanol is a poor acid.
Methanol has a distinct odor and gives off a white flame when burned. Ethanol has a heavy, burning odor and gives off a blue flame when burned.
The manufacturing of methanol is mainly a synthetic process.Ethanol’s creation typically occurs naturally through the fermentation of food crops from factories.
Methanol is highly poisonous and is a component in the manufacturing of products like formaldehyde. Ethanol is the main ingredient in a variety of alcoholic beverages.

Costs of Methanol and Ethanol

How Much Does Methanol Cost?

The current cost for methanol made from natural gas is $1.13 per gallon. It produces about half the energy per gallon as gasoline. Because of this, you have to use twice as much to travel the same distance.

Methanol is still cheaper than gas. It would cost $3, including taxes, distribution, and retail markup, to travel the same distance on methanol as a gallon of gasoline.

How Much Does Ethanol Cost?

Ethanol is an alternative to gasoline that people frequently use in many vehicles. It isn’t cost-effective to use an ethanol and gasoline blend in place of unblended gasoline. An ethanol-gasoline blend costs a few cents more per average than a gallon of regular gasoline.

The US Department of Energy states that since 2014 there is a 33 cents per gallon difference.

Impacts on the Environment

Methanol’s Impacts on the Environment

Ten years ago, methanol manufacturing plants emitted carbon dioxide during production. In the last decade, newer plants have been able to change the methanol production methods. Through advanced technology and efficiency improvements, plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by up to 40%.

Before, a manufacturing plant would emit 0.9 to 1.0 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide for every ton of methanol produced. Now, some facilities report emissions as low as 0.54 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every ton of menthol produced.

Renewable methanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions and carbon reduction benefits ranging from 65 to 95%. This is a good transportation alternative to gasoline and diesel. Additionally, methanol lowers tailpipe emissions in combustion and increases efficiency in vehicles.

Methanol is biodegradable in aerobic and anaerobic environments. In the US, over 200 wastewater treatment plants used methanol to inject into the treatment systems. This process reduces nitrogen levels that can harm sensitive underwater environments.

Ethanol’s Impacts on the Environment

Ethanol is non-toxic, biodegradable, and can reduce pollution. However, some of its denaturants are toxic.

Pure ethanol is non-toxic and biodegradable, unlike gasoline. It breaks down quickly and doesn’t harm substances if it’s spilled, but the chemical denaturants added to make fuel are toxic. Like gasoline, ethanol is highly flammable, and therefore you need to transport it carefully.

Ethanol and ethanol-gasoline mixtures burn cleaner and have higher octane levels than pure gasoline. Producing and burning ethanol results in carbon dioxide emissions. However, when ethanol comes from biomass like corn or sugarcane, it’s considered neutral because biomass absorbs carbon dioxide.

Risks Associated with Methanol and Ethanol

Risks of Methanol

Like most things, there are risks associated with methanol. Methanol is flammable and toxic. Blindness can occur if ingested directly, as well as poisoning to the central nervous system and even death. This can also happen if you inhale methanol vapors.

When handling methanol, also avoid direct exposure. You should always wear safety to cover your face, eyes, and skin. If you’re working with methanol and vapors are present, make sure the area has proper ventilation.

If there is ever a methanol spill or leak, immediately call the fire department and try to isolate the spill. Never touch or walk through any spillage. This will prevent spilled methanol from entering into waterways, sewers, or confined areas.

If you’re storing methanol, ensure you keep it within a closed system or an environmentally-approved container labeled appropriately. Methanol should never be left open to the air. Procedures and systems need to be in place whenever methanol is present, at storage and transfer points.

Risks of Ethanol

Even though ethanol is common and people use it often, it is still a dangerous chemical. Ethanol is highly flammable and has flashpoints, so be aware of those when using it. Plus, ethanol is a chemical, so you should treat it as such.

Even though people consume ethanol when drinking alcoholic beverages, you should never drink pure ethanol. Ethanol can cause you to go into a coma and death.

Choosing Between Methanol or Ethanol: A Quick Glance

While both methanol and ethanol are alcohols, they are very different. When determining the difference between the two, you need to keep in mind costs, environmental impacts, and risks.

Cost of Methanol vs. Ethanol

Methanol is cheaper than gas, but it isn’t as cost-effective because of taxes, distribution, and retail markup. To travel the same distance on methanol as a gallon of gasoline would cost twice as much.

Ethanol is an alternative to gasoline. An ethanol and gasoline blend costs a few cents more on average than regular gasoline.

The Winner: Ethanol

Environmental Impacts of Methanol vs. Ethanol

Overtime, methanol and ethanol have become safer for the environment.

Methanol is biodegradable in aerobic and anaerobic environments and beneficial for some underwater environments. Methanol facilities are now reporting less carbon dioxide emissions. Renewable methanol has also been able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 to 95%.

Ethanol is non-toxic, biodegradable, and can reduce pollution. Though some of its denaturants are toxic, there are still benefits, a cleaner burn, and higher octane levels than gasoline. When ethanol is made from biomass, carbon dioxide emissions are considered neutral because biomass absorbs the carbon dioxide.

The Winner: Tied

Risks of Methanol vs. Ethanol

Methanol has many more risks associated with it than ethanol does.

Methanol is flammable and toxic. There are risks of poison and even death associated with ingesting methanol, inhaling methanol, or getting methanol on your skin. Methanol can also be toxic if spilled.

While ethanol is also a flammable, toxic, and dangerous chemical, it’s safer for consumption. You cannot directly ingest it, but it is a key ingredient in the making of alcoholic beverages.

The Winner: Ethanol

Our Final Take

Overall, ethanol is a cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, and safe alternative when comparing ethanol to methanol.

When you keep all of the factors in mind, ethanol costs slightly more than gasoline, but methanol requires more product. Methanol and ethanol are not great for the environment, but manufacturers have discovered benefits for the environment with new technology. Finally, when it comes to safety, ethanol has far fewer risks than methanol.

Related Questions

Are there other types of alcohol?

Yes, there are three main types of alcohol, isopropyl, methyl, and ethyl. All three alcohols are toxic, but ethyl can produce alcohol that is safe for human consumption. Isopropyl and methyl are used as sterilizing agents or as fuels.Isopropyl alcohol is commonly known as rubbing alcohol and is used daily by physicians for its cooling and disinfecting properties. When you combine water and propylene, rubbing alcohol is made for sterilization. Because it has a high evaporation rate, it’s a good choice for cleaning electronics and for various cleaning products.Isopropyl alcohol is in cosmetics like lotion. Isopropyl has bittering agents to dissuade people from ingesting it.

What products have methanol as an ingredient?

After learning that methanol is so toxic, you may be surprised that it can be found in some of our everyday products. Methanol’s derivative products like acetic acid and formaldehyde are base materials in things like acrylic plastic or paint. It’s also found in synthetic fabrics to make clothing, adhesives, and plywood. Methanol derivatives also appear as a chemical agents in some pharmaceuticals and agriculture chemicals. Methanol is also an ingredient in some hand sanitizers. Recently, the FDA warned consumers and health care providers of purchasing certain batches of hand sanitizers that contained methanol. Hand sanitizers were labeled to contain ethanol, but the hand sanitizer was positive for methanol contamination when tested. Soft drinks containing aspartame are also primary sources when methanol is in the human body.

Stacy Randall
Stacy Randall

Stacy Randall is a wife, mother, and freelance writer from NOLA that has always had a love for DIY projects, home organization, and making spaces beautiful. Together with her husband, she has been spending the last several years lovingly renovating her grandparent's former home, making it their own and learning a lot about life along the way.

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