1: A Brief History of Ethanol

The following excerpt is from Sustainable Ethanol: Biofuels, Biorefineries, Cellulosic Biomass, Flex-Fuel Vehicles, and Sustainable Farming for Energy Independence

A Brief History of Ethanol

Internal Combustion and the First Fuel Alcohol Movement

While alcohol fuel was stymied by U.S. taxes in the middle of the 19th century, the same was not true in Europe. In 1860, German engineer Nikolas Otto used alcohol as the fuel for one of his “Otto Cycle” combustion engines.[i] Toward the end of the 1800’s, alcohol-fueled engines enjoyed a period of ascendancy in Europe as a response to worries over the long-term stability of petroleum supplies.[ii]

Back in North America, farmers were beginning to exploit the deep, rich soil of the Great Plains. Production spikes caused commodity prices to fall, a situation that would often plague America’s farmers. Despite the steep tax on alcohol, Henry Ford designed his first car, the Quadricycle, to run on pure ethanol in the 1896.[iii] The majority of Americans were farmers at the turn of the century, giving them strong political influence. With the help of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Civil War era alcohol tax was finally ended in 1906.[iv] The way was clear for America’s first farmer-driven fuel alcohol movement.

In 1908, Henry Ford equipped his “Model T” with engines capable of running on ethanol, gasoline, or a combination of the two.[v] The ability to use multiple fuels would later be termed “flex-fuel.” Other manufacturers made provisions for alcohol fuel as well. Despite the best efforts of power alcohol enthusiasts, however, alcohol was never able to seriously challenge less expensive gasoline as the dominant transportation fuel.

Around 1917 to 1918, Word War I triggered a surge in demand for industrial alcohol. Production reached 50–60 million gallons per year, marking the high point of America’s first fuel alcohol movement.[vi] After the war, proponents continued to preach the advantages of alcohol fuel, but demand dropped as inexpensive fossil fuels once again dominated the marketplace.

Around this time, ethanol missed out on a huge opportunity. Automotive engineers were looking for gasoline additives that would prevent engine knock at higher compression ratios for better fuel economy. Ethyl alcohol (today referred to as ethanol), already well known as a knock inhibitor, was a possible choice. It was discovered, however, that tetraethyl lead could also do the job. Radford University professor Bill Kovarik discovered documentation from the 1920’s indicating tetraethyl lead was originally intended as a stopgap solution until ethyl alcohol production could be ramped up. Tetraethyl lead became the dominant anti-knock additive for decades. Eventually, tetraethyl lead was recognized as a serious health hazard. In 1986, it was finally banned as a fuel additive.[vii] After World War I, prohibition dashed hopes for maintaining a robust fuel alcohol industry. Beginning in 1920, the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.”[viii] It was still legal to manufacture and use alcohol for fuel, but doing so must have attracted close scrutiny from authorities. Also, fuel alcohol had to be mixed with petroleum so it could not be used as a beverage.[ix] This requirement is still in effect today. Prohibition was eventually repealed by the ratification of the 21st amendment in 1933, marking a new period of opportunity for fuel alcohol.[x]

See chapter 1 of Sustainable Ethanol for the following additional topics:

Lamp Fuel and the First Oil Well
Chemurgy and the Second Fuel Alcohol Movement
Oil Embargoes and the Third Fuel Alcohol Movement
The Return of Cheap Oil
The End of Cheap Oil & the Rise of Ethanol
Figure 1-1. Fuel Ethanol Production, 1982–2006

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[i]. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Ethanol Timeline.”
[ii]. William Kovarik, “Henry Ford, Charles F. Kettering and the Fuel of the Future,” Automotive History Review 32 (Spring 1998): 7–27. Reproduced on the Web at http://www.radford.edu/~wkovarik/papers/fuel.html.
[iii]. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Ethanol Timeline.”
[iv]. Kovarik, “Henry Ford, Charles F. Kettering.”
[v]. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Ethanol Timeline.”
[vi]. Ibid.
[vii]. Kovarik, “Henry Ford, Charles F. Kettering.”
[viii]. The Constitution of The United States, The National Archives, http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/
[ix]. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Ethanol History,” Energy Kid’s Page, http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/sources/renewable/ethanol.html.
[x]. The Constitution of The United States, The National Archives.

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