How is methanol procured and used as liquor?

How is methanol procured and used as liquor?


The Kallakurichi illicit liquor tragedy has claimed over 50 lives, marking another episode in the recurring series of methanol poisoning incidents across India.

  • These tragedies unfold with a familiar pattern: illegal liquor laced with methanol leads to mass casualties.


GS-02 (Governance, Government policies and interventions)

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Procedure of Making Ethanol and Methanol
  • Uses of Ethanol and Methanol
  • Adverse Effects of Methanol

Procedure of Making Ethanol and Methanol

  1. Ethanol Production:
  • Ethanol, the primary component of legal liquor, is produced biologically from fermenting sugars present in crops like corn and sugarcane.
  • In India, distilleries often use molasses, a by-product of the sugar-making process, as the starting material for ethanol production.
  • Distillation Process: The molasses are fermented to produce rectified spirit, which is then distilled further to produce extra neutral alcohol (ENA). ENA is the key ingredient in making Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), a significant revenue source for State governments.
  • Methanol Removal: During the controlled distillation process, any methanol produced as a by-product is meticulously removed to ensure the ethanol is safe for consumption.
  1. Methanol Production:
  • Unlike ethanol, methanol is synthesized from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
  • Methanol is primarily used in industrial applications, including the production of paints, solvents, and antifreeze.
  • Due to its toxic nature, methanol production, transportation, and storage are highly regulated, requiring licenses and strict monitoring to prevent misuse.
  1. Procurement and Regulation:
  • Both ethanol and methanol are controlled substances, with stringent regulations governing their manufacture and distribution. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the supply chain of methanol is closely audited to prevent illegal diversion.
  • Despite these controls, there exists a lucrative pilferage racket, particularly in regions like northern Tamil Nadu, where methanol is sourced from neighboring states like Andhra Pradesh. This illicit trade often leads to methanol being used in the production of illegal liquor.
  1. Illegal Production Methods:
  • Bootleggers using crude distillation methods may fail to remove methanol, resulting in contaminated illicit liquor.
  • In some cases, methanol is deliberately added to increase the potency of the illegal brew, driven by the misconception that it can mimic the effects of ethanol at a lower cost.

Uses of Ethanol and Methanol

  1. Ethanol:
  • Alcoholic Beverages: Ethanol is the main ingredient in alcoholic beverages consumed worldwide.
  • Industrial Uses: It is also used in the pharmaceutical industry, as a solvent in perfumes, and in the production of varnishes.
  • Fuel: Ethanol serves as a biofuel, blended with petrol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  1. Methanol:
  • Industrial Applications: Methanol is crucial in the production of formaldehyde, acetic acid, and various chemicals used in manufacturing.
  • Energy Sector: It is used as an antifreeze, a solvent, and an alternative fuel source.
  • Paints and Coatings: Essential in the production of paints and coatings, methanol is indispensable for certain industrial processes.

Adverse Effects of Methanol

  1. Toxicity: Methanol is highly toxic and can cause severe health issues even at low concentrations. Ingesting methanol leads to metabolic acidosis, affecting the body’s ability to maintain its pH balance.
  2. Health Consequences:
    • Nervous System Damage: Methanol poisoning affects the central nervous system, causing symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, and in severe cases, seizures and coma.
    • Visual Impairment: A hallmark of methanol poisoning is optic neuropathy, which can lead to permanent blindness.
    • Organ Damage: Methanol metabolizes into formaldehyde and formic acid in the body, leading to damage to vital organs such as the liver and kidneys.
  3. Fatal Outcomes: High doses of methanol can be fatal, as seen in numerous hooch tragedies where victims succumb to multi-organ failure.

Suggested Measures

  • Central and State Collaboration: There is a need for robust central legislation working in tandem with state laws to tighten the control over methanol production and distribution.
  • Poisons Act Enforcement: Strict enforcement of the Poisons Act and similar regulations can help prevent the diversion of methanol into illegal liquor production.
  • Supply Chain Audits: Regular and thorough audits of methanol supply chains can identify and close gaps where pilferage occurs.
  • Technology Integration: Using technology such as GPS tracking and blockchain can enhance the monitoring of methanol transportation and storage.
  • Education Campaigns: Public health campaigns can educate communities about the dangers of consuming illicit liquor and the risks associated with methanol.
  • Community Involvement: Involving local communities in monitoring and reporting illicit liquor activities can create a proactive defense against methanol poisoning.
  • Law Enforcement: Strengthening law enforcement to crack down on bootlegging operations can reduce the availability of illicit liquor.
  • Judicial Action: Swift and decisive judicial action against those involved in the illegal liquor trade can serve as a deterrent.
  • Economic Support: Providing alternative livelihoods for those involved in the illegal liquor trade can reduce their dependency on this harmful industry.
  • Skill Development: Training programs can equip individuals with skills to pursue legal and safer economic activities.
  • Safer Alternatives: Investing in R&D to develop safer alternatives to methanol for industrial uses can reduce the risk of its misuse.
  • Detection Technologies: Developing advanced detection technologies can help identify methanol contamination in alcoholic beverages swiftly and accurately.