Tuesday, August 22, 2017

‘Flavour of the times’

the idea was feasible from a technical and commercial standpoint

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Methanex Trinidad’s processing plant.

Mark Fraser


“Alternative fuels” are all the rage these days which, no doubt, explains why the Energy Chamber invited Jeron Chin, process team leader at Methanex Trinidad, to deliver a paper on “fuel blending” at its annual energy conference last week.

Since this feature had, perforce, to be written before Chin’s presentation, I can’t refer to what he might have said about the future of the initiative Methanex and its fellow methanol producer, MHTL, embarked upon several years ago to prove to the relevant authorities that a seven to ten per cent methanol blend in the gasolene dispensed at the pump in Trinidad and Tobago would have many benefits, both economical and environmental.

As I recall, no actual blending was ever undertaken but the three-year-long study by the two companies and Petrotrin, which produces all the country’s gasolene, did conclude that the idea was feasible from a technical and commercial standpoint.

Methanol, of which Trinidad and Tobago is the world’s largest producer from a single site (Point Lisas) seems to be the “flavour of the times” as far as fuel substitution is concerned.

“Energy Insider” readers will recall that businessman George A B Naime (he runs Aerogas Processors down at Point Lisas) presented a well-researched paper to IBC Energy’s Caribbean Natural Gas Forum at the Hilton Trinidad last October in which he enthusiastically promoted methanol as the best substitute for the heavy fuel oil and diesel now used in Caribbean power stations, in order to help bring down costs and contribute to a cleaner atmosphere.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is normally seen as the best power-generation fuel substitute for the liquid fossil fuels mentioned above but Naime is instead now a strong convert to methanol or methalene, as he calls it, since the methanol will be mixed with water.

Interestingly, the main advocate for the LNG route – Jed Bailey, managing partner of the Energy Narrative consultancy – was down to talk about the superiority of LNG at the Energy Conference. The Energy Chamber might have thought of inviting Naime to present the contrary view (he was himself a strong believer in LNG until his conversion on the road to Damascus).

What Chin may have said about the likelihood of methanol ever being introduced into the gasolene pool, I can’t tell you. The alternative fuel being favoured by the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs (MEEA) is compressed natural gas (CNG) and we were due to hear from Curtis Mohammed, chief executive officer (CEO) of the NGC-CNG company, on that subject at the Energy Conference.

What we do know is that, worldwide, methanol seems to be catching on as an addition to, or substitute for, gasolene.

It is being used in the European Union (EU), Iceland, Israel, New Zealand and, especially, China.

The latter uses well over six million tonnes of methanol in fuel, ranging from a low-level blend of five per cent all the way up to 100 per cent. For the latter, you heed special engines and China’s manufacturers are busily producing the required vehicles.

Methanol is clearly giving fierce competition to that other gasolene additive, sugar and corn based-ethanol, which has caught on particularly in Brazil and the United States where, in the latter case, it makes up as much as ten per cent of the fuel market.

While Methanex, MHTL and Petrotrin decide where they want to go next with methanol fuel blending, a new player has popped-up on the scene in the person of Shaun Spiers, regional director, business development, of Alton Oil of Florida.

Spiers, who happens to be the son of one of my oldest friends, Jimmy (though that, of course, has an influence on my decision to feature him in this edition of Energy Insider), is well known in the energy industry in Trinidad and Tobago by virtue of the services company, Portable Works, that he used to own, before selling out and moving to Houston, Texas.

He still lives there but is now roaming the Caribbean on a new mission – to promote the same cause of methanol-as-an-additive-in-gasolene.

Spiers is doing so by means of a proprietary product known as Singular 96, developed by CyberFuels Inc of Florida which combines methanol, gasolene and a special additive in the ratio of 85/14/1. This 85 per cent methanol injection is way above that envisaged by the Methanex/MHTL/Petrotrin trio.

He has set up a company called Spion Kop Inc in the tax haven of Anguilla, which has been appointed sole distributor of Singular 96 in Trinidad and Tobago and non exclusive distributor in the rest of the Caribbean.

Independent laboratories in California have tested what CyberFuels Inc has described as the “ultimate synthesis in alternative fuels” and found it performed creditably in such areas as kilometres per litre and exhaust emissions.

If introduced at the pump locally, because it displaces 85 per cent of the gasolene that would normally be used, it could release a significant volume for export by Petrotrin which, with prices going down, would help to shore-up export earnings.

Equally, if not more, important, Spiers sees Singular 96 as the best way of reducing the transportation fuel subsidy, since it will not require any favourable treatment from MEEA.

For the motorist, it means no engine tampering, unlike the case of CNG, where engine modifications have to be made. Spiers, in an exclusive interview with me, made it clear that the product is not in competition with CNG and it would be up to the motorist to make the choice.

Current gasolene prices at the pump in Trinidad and Tobago are TT$5.75 a litre for premium and TT$2.70 for super.

Spiers believes Singular 96 could be dispensed at the pump locally for TT$2.50 or thereabouts, taking all costs of the methanol, gasolene, the additive and excise taxes into account. This would make it highly competitive with premium and even competitive with super.

When the price of premium was jacked-up to TT$5.75, thousands of motorists switched to super and Spiers points out that if he can lure them to his product, the government would have to be paying out much less on the still-subsidised super.

His hope is that he will be allowed to run trials with Singular 96 locally, so motorists can see its benefits for themselves.

He says both of the two methanol companies and the two fuel distributors, National Petroleum and Unipet, are supportive. Of course, MEEA would have to make the final decision.

“I also met officials at MEEA, including Frank Look Kin. I did not manage to see Minister Ramnarine, though I requested a meeting,” he says.



David Renwick was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) in 2008 for the development of energy journalism in Trinidad and Tobago.