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Alternative Fuels & Vehicle Technology - On The Line

Where Did All The Ethanol Come From?

Nov 25, 2008
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In January of 1907, three identical Maxwell automobiles traveled a distance of 249 miles between New York and Boston to evaluate the effectiveness of gasoline, kerosene, and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) as motor fuels. Despite severe conditions and heavy snows, the total distance traveled during the three-day test was sufficient "to allow accurate comparisons between the three fuels," according to the comparison committee that sanctioned the test. The results, certified by official observers who accompanied the three Maxwell cars, gave an average of 10.1 mpg for gasoline, 7.4 mpg for kerosene, and 8.1 mpg for the alcohol fuel. The price of the alcohol fuel was its primary drawback, costing four times as much per gallon as gasoline, but The New York Times, in its Feb. 12, 1907 edition, was optimistic about ethanol: "... It is believed that within a short time the price will be materially reduced so that it may be a successful financial competitor with gasoline. At present, the price is the only drawback. In all other respects alcohol more than verified the expectations as a fuel possessing excellent motive power."

Any moonshiner can tell you the recipe for ethanol. Mix sugar and water and yeast and let it ferment for a day or two. The yeast will break down with the glucose sugar molecules (C6H12O6) to form ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2). Don't have any sugar? Don't worry. You can use almost any starchy food, like potatoes, wheat, or corn, which use heat to break down the starches into sugars with the help of naturally occurring enzymes and then use yeast to make alcohol. Ethanol is actually toxic to yeast, so about the strongest a batch of "mash" can get is 15 percent alcohol. That's where a still comes in.

Separating the alcohol from the water using a still is a simple process called distillation. Ethanol boils at 75.4 degrees C, significantly lower than water's boiling point. If you heat the mash that contains 15 percent alcohol above ethanol's boiling point but below water's boiling point, the ethanol will vaporize. All you have to do is collect the vapor with a tube and condense it back into a liquid by cooling it and you have 190 proof (about 95 percent pure mixed with 5 percent water) alcohol. Moonshine. Serve it in a mason jar if you are a traditionalist.

Aside from its virtues as an intoxicant, the energy contained in ethanol has real value as a fuel. The V-2 rocket used by the Germans during World War II was powered by burning liquid ethanol mixed with liquid oxygen. This same fuel was used in the Redstone rocket that launched America's first satellite into space. Long before that, ethanol was recognized as a potential fuel to power the automobile.

World War I resulted in a shortage of oil and U.S. ethanol production jumped to 50-60 million gallons per year. After the war, ethyl alcohol as a fuel continued to fascinate motorists and researchers. The University of Michigan's Professor of Chemistry, Eugene H. Leslie, wrote a book in 1923 titled Motor Fuels: Their Production and Technology. He noted: "The value of ethyl alcohol as a motor fuel when used in a mixture with gasoline ... has been amply demonstrated." Leslie surveyed a variety of sources, including molasses, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and artichokes, but found that, "If any other grains are to be used for alcohol manufacture in this country corn will be the one." This was 1923. In a premonition of an argument used against corn ethanol today he noted, "The better grades of corn cannot be used for alcohol manufacture because of their greater value for feed and food."

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By the early '30s, the use of alcohol blended with gasoline as a motor fuel was common in many parts of the world. Argentina, Austria, Brazil, France, and Italy all decreed that alcohol be mixed into gasoline supplies to reduce imports of foreign oil or refined gasoline. In Germany, alcohol, produced chiefly from potatoes and also from grains and molasses, was mixed extensively to extend that country's limited petroleum supplies. In the U.S., however, a dark cloud formed on alcohol's horizon. A group of oil companies decided to flex their muscle and oppose the dilution of their profits that they perceived would come from a gasoline and alcohol motor fuel. A 1933 article in The New York Times, titled "Motor Fuel Blend Decried by Oilmen," reported, "The proposal that Congress enact a law requiring that all gasoline sold in the United States as motor fuel be blended with 10 percent by volume of alcohol made from agricultural products grown within the continental United States is opposed by oil companies on the grounds that it would give motorists a fuel inferior to that which is obtained solely from crude oil and that the prices would be higher." Big agriculture wanted into the fuel business and the oil companies wanted to keep it out.

The warfare between big agriculture and big oil came to a head on Apr. 14, 1936, at the meeting of the American Chemical Society in Kansas City. As reported in The New York Times, the oilmen were represented by Dr. Gustav Egloff, director of research of the Universal Oil Products Company of Chicago, and Dr. J.C. Morrell, the company's associate director. Dr. Egloff and Dr. Morrell summarized their arguments: "Alcohol gasoline is a distinctly inferior motor fuel in performance, consumption, and upkeep of the motor. Difficult starting, slow acceleration, overheating of engines, and rougher driving can be expected. Economically, blending can result only in economic loss to society, and additional unestimated losses will result to the country at large from the political, moral, and health hazards." Faced with this argument, Dr. Leo Christensen, from the Farm Chemurgic Council, could only point to a new market for farm products, extra farm income, and the potential for 2 million new jobs as reasons to blend gasoline with alcohol. The oilmen, seemingly without irony, came back with an argument on "moral and political grounds." The New York Times wrote, "Tests show, they assert, that the grain alcohol could easily be extracted from the gasoline mixture and would provide good drinking liquor at automobile bars at a cost of only 5 cents per quart. This, they say, would add considerably to drunken driving and motor accidents."

Dr. Egloff also addressed the supply of oil: "... At the present rate of discovery of new fields, it's practically inexhaustible, and that the hydrogenation of coal would provide a supply of oil for 10,000 years." He concluded with the remark that, "If it were desirable, from a purely technical point of view, to produce alcohol for motor fuel use, the oil industry can make it in enormous volumes, from cracked gases from petroleum refining, at a price highly competitive with any produced from farm products." When Dr. Oscar C. Bridgeman from the National Bureau of Standards supported the position of big oil, old carbon and the oil companies ended up the big winners. The idea of using new carbon ethanol as America's motor fuel was put back onto the shelf where it would more or less stay for the next 60 years.

An excerpt from an upcoming book by Kevin Clemens on alternative fuels and vehicle technology.



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