The fuel of the future:  ethanol

Between the 1890s and the 1920s, the “fuel of the future” was widely  expected to be alcohol (ethanol). Engineers were so convinced about it  that a 1915 book entitled Modern Inventions featured a chapter entitled “Alcohol Motors and the Fuel of the Future” sandwiched between zeppelins and submarines.

Alcohol had been widely used as a lamp fuel in the US and Europe before the automotive age, but gasoline — a waste product of the kerosene industry —  proved valuable when automobiles began replacing horse-drawn carriages in the early years of the 20th century. Still, gasoline had problems. It could not be used in efficient high-compression engines, it was probably running out, and many in US and European governments objected to the way Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell dominated the markets. Farm-scale alcohol fuel (ethanol) would, according to engineers like Henry Ford,  not only compete with the Standard monopoly but also replace the value of the horse-and-oats economy that farmers lost.

Ford’s ideas for enhancing the rural economy were influenced by a massive agrarian project that created tens of thousands of farm alcohol stills across Germany at the turn of the 20th century.  The US farm alcohol movement, in contrast,  failed for a variety of reasons, including Prohibition, and shifted into a broader movement called “farm Chemurgy” designed to cerate an agrarian industry and add value to all kinds of farm products. Soybean plastics were one fairly successful attempt in that direction.  Continued experiments with the use of 10 percent alcohol in gasoline ended in failure with the bankruptcy of the Atchison, Kansas “Agrol” alcohol fuel factory in 1939.  The plant was revved back up a few years later, when alcohol was needed for synthetic rubber during World War II.

Europeans, Latin Americans and some Asian nations, anxious to shore up farm economies and maintain some distance from the international oil industry, kept using ethanol blends in gasoline from the pre-World War I period  through the 1960s. British engineer Harry Ricardo, in particular, commercialized the use of ethanol blends through the Cleveland Discoll company in the 1930s.


Biofuels future shapes up in Brazil — New York Times, June 2, 2011

Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the Fuel of the Future — Automotive History, 1998


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