Monday, April 9, 2012

An Early History of Ethanol as a Fuel for Motor Vehicles, to 1941 in the U.S.

For the past century, specifically during agricultural surpluses and/or fuel shortages, the United States of America has investigated the use of pure alcohol or alcohol-gasoline mixtures as an alternative to traditional crude oil based gasoline. Ethanol fuel, also known as pure alcohol, is created by the fermentation of plant materials, most commonly corn, wheat, and sugarcane. It represents not only an escape from limited supplies of crude oil, but also a potential to create American independence from nations that have an abundance of crude oil, mostly based in the Middle East. As the discussion of $5.00/gallon of gasoline approaches, these efforts to find an alternative are increased yet again. Due to many potential advantages, ethanol has been investigated since the introduction of the automobile as a potential alternative to the use of petroleum as a fuel source, but has failed on a large scale many times due to a number of significant drawbacks.

The potential for ethanol as a fuel source first arose during World War I, as incredible fuel shortages ensued; it was at this time that Henry Ford began researching the production of alcohol from grain; this was part of Ford’s lifelong interest to join agriculture to industry. However, no official testing was able to be conducted until the post-war era brought a concern that worldwide petroleum supplies would soon be depleted. The post-war era also brought about the end of the Progressive reform and Prohibition. Due to ethanol’s use in beverage alcohol, alcohol distillers during Prohibition latched on to it as an alternative fuel in attempt to save their dying businesses. They would provide a number of arguments to promote their product’s use as a straight fuel or blended with traditional gasoline to create gasohol (a mixture of conventional gasoline with any type of alcohol, generally portioned at 10-25% alcohol). The most important of these advantages involved countering the growing problem of engine knock, increased power, and very similar fuel mileage data to that of conventional gasoline.

The first major attempt to market gasohol occurred in 1922 when the Standard Oil Company tested a 25% blend in the Baltimore, MD area. This was sponsored most significantly due to low-priced industrial alcohol left over from World War I and rising gasoline prices (Giebelhaus 175). Unfortunately, this program would only be short lived due to the fact that fuel lines and carburetors would easily become clogged, caused by unexpected separation of gasoline and alcohol from even the slightest presence of water (American 3). This effort was also thwarted by increased technology both in crude oil mining and gasoline production. Thanks to advances in thermal-cracking technology, drillers were now able to mine deeper and yield much more oil per barrel. Coupled with the introduction of the now infamous tetraethyl lead, a relatively cheap way to decrease engine knock, made the advantages of alcohol unnecessary and expensive when compared to the new blend of petroleum based gasoline. Ultimately, the alcohol fuel movement was essentially killed due to difficulty expanding distilleries in the Prohibition era and the now unneeded advantages.

The potential for alcohol based fuel sources arose again during the early 1930s, as agriculture took an intense dive, bringing corn prices down to ten cents per bushel. Grasping for any hope of saving their farms, agricultural leaders threw incredible amounts of support at promoting and advancing technology in ethanol fuel. This actually led to the creation of the “Motor Fuel Alcohol Committee,” which consisted of a number of Midwestern alcohol supporters. This committee would investigate the potential for nationwide use of corn to produce ethanol, and would ultimately conclude that if the United States were to support corn based ethanol, a need for more than 100 million bushels annually would be created (Motor 1). Given the possibility to create ethanol from wheat, corn, oats, barley, and even root crops like sweet potatoes, the committee’s investigation also proved that corn based ethanol would be a much smarter choice for the United States due to its large amounts of carbohydrates, large scale production already in place and its relatively inexpensive nature. This movement grew in popularity among major corn production states in the Midwest, also known as the Corn Belt; Iowa introduced a bill that, if passed, would require all fuel sold in the state to contain ten percent farm alcohol (Giebelhaus 176). It was believed that this mixture would allow greatly improved performance and would also aid the state’s dying agricultural industry. However, given the added costs necessary to create ethanol fuel, it was estimated that if farmers wanted to break even, they would need to sell their corn at 75 cents per bushel (Giebelhaus 177). Skeptics also argued that benefits simply do not outweigh the increased production cost, and that using a ten percent alcohol blend would increase Iowa’s corn production by only three percent, which wouldn’t provide a large enough effect to recover the dying market. These results, coupled with an aggressive campaign sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute aimed at terminating national tax incentives for power alcohol, left the use ethanol as a fuel source, yet again, as an experiment and a hopeful dream.

Agriculture’s use in industry would seemingly die until 1935 when the ever persistent Henry Ford, in unison with Dr. William J Hale, Mr. Francis Patrick Garvan, and Dr. Charles Holmes Herty, brought industrial and agricultural leaders together to promote the potential of combining science, industry and agriculture. The First Dearborn Conference, May 7-8 1935, attempted “to offer an alternative to the domestic-allotment, acreage restriction agriculture programs of the New Deal and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace” (Giebelhaus 179). This conference brought members to Henry Ford’s replica of Independence Hall in Greenfield Village Museum to sign a “Declaration of Dependence Upon the Soil and the Right of Self-Maintenance.” To further the sentiment, it has been reported that also in the hall, rested Thomas Jefferson’s desk and a replica of the inkstand used to sign the famous “Declaration of Independence” in Philadelphia, PA on July 4, 1776. It was later determined at this conference that the main reason why power alcohol had failed in the past lied most specifically with a lack of anhydrous alcohol, which is needed for the conversion of grain to alcohol. Hale projected that within the following three years, anhydrous alcohol would be available as low as fifteen cents per gallon.

This led to the construction of the first major ethanol refinery in Atchison, Kansas; Atchison Agrol Company opened this plant for operation on October 1, 1936. However, the first six months were faced with nothing but legal difficulty and a shortage of raw materials. Despite setbacks, the Atchison plant began full scale production of three separate blends: Agrol 5, which compared very similarly to normal gasoline, Agrol 10 and Agrol 15, which were closely related to premium anti-knock fuels (Farm 75). These blends were test marketed in Midwestern states at similar costs to straight gasoline. Unfortunately, this price could not last for long as the Atchison plant began to realize just how expensive it was to convert grain to alcohol. The closest anyone would come to Hale’s previous prediction of fifteen cents per gallon was twenty-five cents. This represented nearly five times the cost of raw materials needed to convert crude oil to petroleum based fuel.

The late 1930s allowed supporters the opportunity to reflect on their experiments and test markets of the previous years. They, along with such organizations as the Farm Chemurgic Council and the USDA, concluded that alcohol would never reach a cost low enough to prove any benefit as even a five or ten percent blend in straight gasoline. While the agricultural industry was seeing a great amount of benefit from these programs, without tax incentives, they simply wouldn’t be able to supply ethanol at an affordable cost. However, the one major positive pulled from the 1920s and 30s showed the United States that as a long-term alternative fuel source, that ethanol could potentially support the nation’s need for motor fuel. Ultimately, the Roosevelt and New Deal era focused very little on the use of alcohol for fuel, which was heavily dependent on government support and aid.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing history of U.S car. this information will be useful for car dealers to dealerships in car.
    Used Trucks for sale