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Throughout history, alcohols have been used as a fuel. The first four aliphatic alcohols (methanol, ethanol, propanol, and butanol) are of interest as fuels because they can be synthesized chemically or biologically, and they have characteristics which allow them to be used in internal combustion engines. The general chemical formula for alcohol fuel is CnH2n+1OH.
Most methanol is produced from natural gas, although it can be produced from biomass using very similar chemical processes. Ethanol is commonly produced from biological material through fermentation processes. However, ethanol that is derived from petroleum should not be considered safe for consumption as the mixture contains about 5% methanol and may cause blindness or death. Biobutanol has the advantage in combustion engines in that its energy density is closer to gasoline than the simpler alcohols (while still retaining over 25% higher octane rating); however, biobutanol is currently more difficult to produce than ethanol or methanol. When obtained from biological materials and/or biological processes, they are known as bioalcohols (e.g. "bioethanol"). There is no chemical difference between biologically produced and chemically produced alcohols.
One advantage shared by the four major alcohol fuels is their high octane rating. This tends to increase their fuel efficiency and largely offsets the lower energy density of vehicular alcohol fuels (as compared to petrol/gasoline and diesel fuels), thus resulting in comparable "fuel economy" in terms of distance per volume metrics, such as kilometers per liter, or miles per gallon.
Methanol and ethanol can both be derived from fossil fuels, biomass, or perhaps most simply, from carbon dioxide and water. Ethanol has most commonly been produced through fermentation of sugars, and methanol has most commonly been produced from synthesis gas, but there are more modern ways to obtain these fuels. Enzymes can be used instead of fermentation. Methanol is the simpler molecule, and ethanol can be made from methanol. Methanol can be produced industrially from nearly any biomass, including animal waste, or from carbon dioxide and water or steam by first converting the biomass to synthesis gas in a gasifier. It can also be produced in a laboratory using electrolysis or enzymes.
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