Outdoors Rabid Ramblings Survival

Experiments with meths

Do a quick search of the appropriate forums and you find that the general opinion is that finding meths in India is hard. Well this may partly be true, because medical spirit or Isopropyl alcohol (they are not the same thing) is pretty expensive if you plan to use it for cooking. Ideally of course it would be wonderful to have your own reflux/moonshine still ;-) and burn pure ethanol in its virgin state, but that might probably also land you behind bars in this age of patriotic slavery. So we are stuck with burning methanol [ CH3OH ], if you are in India, read that as adulterated methanol with additives such as acetone which gives off a foul black smoke which coats cooking utensils.

Methanol turns milky when mixed with water
Methanol turns milky when mixed with water

Methanol can be produced by the destructive distillation of wood (Pyrolysis), or from natural gas. It is also naturally produced during metabolism by many anaerobic bacteria.

Methanol is toxic. Wikipedia says that 10ml is sufficient to cause blindness by damage to the optic nerve and 30ml is fatal. On inquiring on Facebook, friends suggested that the paint & hardware shops were the right place to find it. I asked another friend and he said that some shady doctors in the slums bought it from there as it cost Rs. 50-55 per liter as compared to approximately the same cost for about 200ml of medical spirit. I bought 5 liters of the stuff after making sure that it was meths and not turpentine. You need to ask for spirit. If you ask for methylated spirits, meths or denatured alcohol, they wont have a clue as to what it is.  A quick test is to pour some on your palm. It feels cool and evaporates completely and leaves your hand slightly moist -ideally it should leave no deposits, but the “spirit” that I got leaves a whitish deposit.

At 1.5:1 The fuel mostly burns in the well. It can still cook, but it would be time consuming -especially in cold weather. Could be good for simmering though
At 1.5:1 The fuel mostly burns in the well. It can still cook, but it would be time consuming -especially in cold weather. Could be good for simmering though

Since this was bought at a paint and hardware store, it was obviously not designed to be burned as fuel in a stove. (I’m not sure what it is used for -probably as a thinner for paint?) I’ve heard that the meths abroad are coloured, just like our kerosene here is stained blue.  This is  pale yellow, like a light beer, which is probably its natural colour. Since it wasn’t designed to be burned in a stove, I wasn’t surprised that it burned with a sooty bright yellow flame when the burner became hot. You can see examples of the various stages of burn in a previous post. At a certain point, the flame would flare up so much that I would drop the simmering ring onto the burner fearing that the burner would explode. (This probably is a fear from childhood when I had set fire to my mum’s spirit lamp after elongating its wick after which it overheated and exploded) After searching for pictures of a Trangia burner being used for cooking, I found many pictures of the burner with large yellow flames (unlike those lovely blue gas ring type of flames in most of the pictures) which has put my heart at ease.

With all these things floating  around in my mind, I remembered reading that meths are miscible with water and adding 10% of water to the meths causes it to burn with less soot. It also occurred to me that  the diluted meths would be less volatile and burn gentler, so I decided to give it a try. I started off with a 1:1  meth:water  ratio and went up to 3:1. Here are the results 🙂

Some Observations…

  • 2.5:1 - The right mix -at least during the North Indian summers... The flame increases slightly and turns yellowish when the burner further heats up.
    2.5:1 – The right mix -at least during the North Indian summers… The flame increases slightly and turns yellowish when the burner further heats up.

    The Meths turned milky on mixing it with water, like toddy or rice water

  • It is better to mix the meths and water outside the burner or whatever is added first gets wicked up the walls of the burner
  • Use distilled or soft water. If you use hard water, you can see a layer of salt floating in the fuel well making a cracking noise. This can be poured off, but anything that gets wicked into the walls will solidify there and become a permanent part of your burner which is not so good!

The results… [ Meths : Water ]

  • 1 : 1         The meths-water mixture would not ignite even at an ambient temperature of about 40 deg C
  • 1.5 : 1      The mixture ignited but burned mostly in the fuel well. there wasn’t enough fuel vaporizing to power the burner
  • 2 : 1          Like above, there wasn’t enough fuel vaporizing  to produce jetting, but intermittent jetting happened towards the end of the burn cycle as the Trangia burner heated up
  • 2.5 : 1       Took some time for the jetting to begin, and started off with a nice blue flame,  but turned into a gentle yellow flame which stayed the same even after the burner was too hot to touch. Ideal mixture at a room temperature of 40 deg C and strong enough not to go out even when I pointed my pedestal fan at it .(at its lowest speed)
  • 3 : 1           Jets faster than the above mixture, but emits a tall yellow flame… although, it was not tested long enough, it is possible, that the flame would have got larger as the burner further heated up and vaporized more of the meths.  There was no point in further testing as the previous 2.5 : 1 mixture proved ideal.
Overkill at 3:1 This is just 30 seconds after lighting the burner. However this ratio should me suitable for use when its cold or snowing
Overkill at 3:1 This is just 30 seconds after lighting the burner. However this ratio should me suitable for use when its cold or snowing

The ideal 2.5:1 mixture needs to be tested at various ambient temperatures. I suppose it will take too long to jet at cooler temperatures and hence increase the cooking time. I’m traveling to Landour, Mussoorie on work tomorrow. Next weekend a few friends plan to camp somewhere in the hills. It should be at least 50% cooler than Delhi and probably raining. Good place to conduct additional tests. Will post the results on my return.

Caution: Check with the authorities before traveling whether you can carry meths with you in India. It is generally forbidden to carry any kind of inflammable goods in public transport whether by bus, train or air…. I still do, because I carry it in Trangias TUV certified safety bottle,  but that won’t help me if I’m caught…  :-(

26th July 2010

Finally managed to test the 2.5:1 mixture at Landour in Musoorie. This was done close to the highest point of Landour  (Lal Tibba) at an ambient temperature of 18 to 20 deg Celsius. It was the monsoon season and clouds were passing through the air. It did ignite here, but as a meth flame isn’t easily visible in the sunlight, I had to redo the test in my room at Landour Community Hospital. As expected, the burner took more than 15 minutes before finally jetting which is not acceptable, so a 3:1 mixture would probably have been more suitable. In the winters when it snows here, I’d probably need 4:1 or use undiluted meths. So there is no ideal mixture here. I will have to keep a chart of the temperatures and ratios.

22nd August 2010

Blue medical spirit next to pure ethanol
Blue medical spirit next to pure ethanol

I was lucky to be able to get this picture. On the left is the medical/surgical spirit that is available to hospitals and medical practitioners for their use (For about Rs. 70/- or so  per liter [at wholesale rates]) I think this is the spirit available overseas which is sold as meths. I remember other bloggers in the UK writing about blue meths. Next to the can of blue meths, is a bottle of white spirit. This is probably 100% Ethanol and as clear as water. It can be allegedly drunk after being filtered through charcoal and is also what booze companies use to blend with whiskey. I also heard a story of someone caught in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) selling “Brandy” which was actually black tea mixed with this stuff. This should be  very hard (and illegal) to obtain. You would need the right connections to obtain this stuff. It would be lovely for burning though!  This bottle came for a government funded medical project. I’m sure there are a lot of unscrupulous fellows siphoning this off to  local bootleggers as there would be definitely “good” money in this. Sometime in the future, I must try my hand at distilling my inferior yellow meths and see whether I can get white spirit good enough to burn… I suspect, using what I currently use would block my Trangia burner with sediments in the long run!

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