The History of Alcoholic Transportation fuels

Alcohol for consumption, produced from fermentation, has been around almost as long as man has harnessed fire for cooking and the ability to make liquid tight containers. Discoveries that led to beer and wine came easily since practically any watery mixture of sugar from fruit or sugar cane will start to ferment from the naturally occurring yeasts in the air. Later, man learned how to control this fermentation and then distill the alcoholic ‘beer’ mixture to separate the alcohol. Ethanol and Methanol (or wood alcohol) has been used as fuel for heat and light in various forms for almost as long. Although Ethanol as a transportation fuel may seem to some to be a new innovation, it has actually been in use as a combustion fuel since before the inception of the motor-car.

Samuel Morey was credited with inventing an engine that runs on Ethanol and Turpentine in 1826. When Nicholas Otto built his 4 stroke spark ignition internal combustion engine in 1876, it was fueled using 190 proof ethanol alcohols .  He then installed his new ‘Otto cycle engine’ in what became a motorcycle.

In 1892, Henry Ford produced his first motor-car, a clumsy yet innovative vehicle   resembling a Quadra cycle propelled by a one-cylinder engine running on ethanol fuel. In 1908, when he launched his Model-T, he made it capable of running on either Ethanol or Gasoline. Henry Ford believed that the transportation fuel of the future was home grown ethanol from corn because it is a renewable resource that would bolster the agricultural economy. On Sept 20th 1925, he is quoted as saying “The time is coming when Americans will grow their own fuel and American cities will be heated by electricity.” His enthusiasm for home grown products made from things green did not end with Ethanol. He was an active participant in what was then the National Farm Chemurgy Council, and his new car company used soybeans as part of its gearshift levers and horn buttons. Chemurgy refers to a defunct branch of applied chemistry that became popular with some in the 1930’s. It was primarily concerned with preparing industrial products from the abundance of cheap agricultural raw materials that were available in the United States at the time.

It is reported that France and Germany were also using Alcohol as a fuel for combustion engines by the early 1890’s.  During the period from 1890 to 1914, British, German and French scientists and government officials began to worry, much as we do today, about the unpredictable nature of the oil supplies from Russia and the America’s. At that time, there were oil trust battles going on between the large oil families that kept the price of oil in constant flux. Engines often had to be adapted quickly to the fuel that was available. France and Germany, having small domestic reserves, felt especially vulnerable and encouraged the development of home grown Alcohol fuels. By 1896, horseless carriages were on the roads all over Europe and the U.S., and internal combustion engines were quickly replacing steam power on the farm and in the factory. A debate raged over whether Alcohol or Gasoline was the better fuel, and competitions began. One of the more famous early races took place in 1899, with four alcohol fueled vehicles racing from Paris to Chantilly; only one completed the race.  In 1925, France, Germany and Brazil mandated the addition of Ethanol as an oxidizer for all fuel sold.

By 1937 in the United States, Ford and General Motors were producing vehicles that could run on Gasoline, Kerosene or Ethanol, and over 2000 stations sold Gasoline-Ethanol blends commonly known as ‘gasohol’. From 1940 to 1972, inexpensive gasoline from oil wells in North America and the Middle East made Ethanol production too expensive to compete and most production facilities shutdown or went out of business. In 1973, as demand for oil began to exceed production capacity, a world wide energy crisis began, causing Ethanol to become cheaper that Gasoline. This renewed interest in Alcohol fuel lasted until 1980, when new oil reserve discoveries were brought in the supply chain. Today, we see a resurgence of interest in these alternative fuels. In 2006, the United States’ production of Ethanol was 5 billion gallons and projected to climb to 13 billion gallons by 2009. Today, there are an estimated 4 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road in the United States, and by 2030 it is projected that annual production will reach 2 million units.

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