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Ethanol: What might have been

Agriculture.com Staff 02/14/2006 @ 10:05am

Most of us in agriculture think we know something about ethanol, the name we use for ethyl alcohol. After all, it's been available for decades in a 10% fuel blend at Midwest gas pumps. It now consumes more than a tenth of the nation's corn crop.

Here are some facts you may not know:

Ethyl alcohol was used to boost octane and stop engine knocking as early as the 1920s and 1930s. It was sold as Alcogas in New England, Vegaline came from Spokane, Washington. Agrol, a gasoline brand blended with as little as 5% ethanol and as much as 17%, was sold from Indiana to South Dakota in the 1930s. "Try a tankfull -- you'll be thankful," its marketing brochures said.

By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, ethanol blends had nearly disappeared. But the Agrol plant in Atchison, Kansas came back into production for the war. The U.S. Army built another plant in Omaha, Nebraska. Alcohol extended fuel for airplanes and submarines. Its use as the raw material for synthetic rubber was even more vital. The Japanese had cut off supplies of natural rubber from southeast Asia.

"By D-day, three-fourths of the U.S. Army was rolling on tires made from Midwestern grain," says William Kovarik, a journalism professor at Radford University in Radford Virginia.

Kovarik, who specializes in environmental reporting, has done a lot of historical research on the battle between leaded gasoline and ethanol blends and has written scholarly papers about it. I came across his work while putting together the history section for the ethanol insert that appears in the mid-February issue of Successful Farming magazine.

Ethanol powered some of the first internal combustion engines in the 19th century. But in the early 20th century, gasoline proved to be a cheaper fuel.

Ethanol's value as an octane booster that prevented engine knock was widely known, however, and ethanol-gasoline blends were common in Europe and in parts of the U.S. early in the last century.

The gasoline additive, tetraethyl lead, turned out to be an effective and slightly cheaper way to end engine knock. It was also deadly, killing refinery workers in a well-publicized industrial accident in 1924. Doctors and scientists pointed out the risks of adding lead to gasoline but a Public Health Service committee found "no good grounds" to ban lead. The bottom line, in Kovarik's view, is that public health officials didn't do their job.

In the 1920s the Public Health Service was part of the Treasury Department, headed by Andrew W. Mellon, one of the owners of Gulf Oil Company, Kovarik says. At that time, the company that made the lead additive for gasoline, Ethyl Corporation, was owned by Standard Oil (now Exxon-Mobil), DuPont and General Motors. (By 1962, those companies no longer owned the Ethyl Corporation. GM is currently an active promoter of using ethanol, not only selling flexible fuel vehicles that burn up to 85% ethanol, but helping to set up pumps for 85% blends known as E-85. Today, tetraethyl lead is still made by Innospec, www.octel-corp.com).

Kovarik is convinced that if lead had been banned in gasoline in the 1920s instead of in 1986, ethanol would have had a much larger market as an octane booster.

"No question about it," he says. "Lead actually knocked alcohol off the market."

In Europe, alcohol was used as an octane booster much more than in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. It was added to gasoline at levels ranging from 10% up to 33%.

Today, in the United States ethanol accounts for only about 3% of gasoline fuel use nationwide, partly because it's blended in only about 30% of the gas. By 2012, when a federally mandated Renewable Fuel Standard will require gasoline retailers to blend in 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol, the corn-based fuel will make up about 6% of the nation's gasoline-blended fuel, according to Department of Energy projections. At that time, ethanol will be sold in about 75% to 85% of the nation's gasoline, according to estimates by the Renewable Fuels Association.

It's interesting to ponder what might have been, if American gasoline had been a blend with 10% ethanol or more throughout the 20th century.

If you would like to read more of Kovarik's scholarly research on the battle between ethyl alcohol and tetraethyl lead, see:

*Paper to the American Society for Environmental History Annual Conference, March 26-30, 2003, Providence, R.I.

**The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 2005;11:384-397

Most of us in agriculture think we know something about ethanol, the name we use for ethyl alcohol. After all, it's been available for decades in a 10% fuel blend at Midwest gas pumps. It now consumes more than a tenth of the nation's corn crop.

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