Interesting Facts About Alcohol Fuels

Sunday, June 5, 2011

1. Since at least 1791, most American farmers used their own alcohol stills to turn crop waste into ethanol for stove fuel. In the 1830's, whale oil became expensive, so using alcohol for light became increasingly popular.

2. In 1860 Nikolaus Otto built an early internal combustion engine. It was fueled by ethanol.

3. By 1900, alcohol fuel (ethanol) was used for lighting and many other uses including cars, farm machinery, stoves, laundry irons, heaters, coffee roasters, hair curlers, etc.

4. Around the same time, most cars on the road used gasoline because it was abundant and inexpensive. But racing cars used alcohol for fuel because it could generate more power in a lighter engine. There was a tax on the industrial use of alcohol, and Henry Ford helped American farmers stop the tax because he was familiar with experiments on alcohol fuels in Germany.

5. In 1906, the alcohol tax was lifted and alcohol became cheaper than gas — 14 cents versus 22 cents per gallon. Bills were also passed that exempted farm stills from government control. When he endorsed the bill, President Teddy Roosevelt said, "The Standard Oil Company has, largely by unfair or unlawful methods, crushed out the competition...It is highly desirable that an element of competition should be introduced by the passage of some such law as that which has already passed in the House, putting alcohol used in the arts and manufacturers upon the [tax] free list."

6. In 1908, the Model T Ford began coming off the assembly line. It had a built-in adjustable carburetor so it could burn either alcohol or gas. In other words, it was a flex fuel car (click here to see a video of a Model T and how it worked). At the time, of course, gas stations weren't everywhere, but most farms had stills, so it made the car more practical to be able to burn both fuels.

7. In 1917, Alexander Graham Bell said, "Alcohol makes a beautiful, clean and efficient fuel… Alcohol can be manufactured from corn stalks, and in fact from almost any vegetable matter capable of fermentation…We need never fear the exhaustion of our present fuel supplies so long as we can produce an annual crop of alcohol to any extent desired." He was ahead of his time.

8. In 1920, Prohibition began and lasted for 13 years. John D. Rockefeller, the owner of Standard Oil Company, had backed the Eighteenth Amendment to ban alcohol. Farmers were no longer allowed to have a still.

9. In 1925, Henry Ford said: "The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years."

10. In 1964, there was a seven-car crash at the Indianapolis 500, killing two drivers because 150 gallons of gasoline caught fire. One of the drivers involved in the crash survived because his car was running on methanol, which didn't ignite. So the United States Auto Club banned gasoline. The cars ran on methanol exclusively for the next 41 years. In 2007, they switched to ethanol, which is still much safer than gasoline.

11. In 1971, American farmers were producing enormous grain surpluses, which threatened to put them out of business (because the price of grain sank too low because there was so much of it), so the Nebraska APIU Committee was formed to find new uses for the surplus grain. They tested gasoline-ethanol blends extensively and discovered ethanol could be used to boost octane, and could potentially replace lead in gasoline (to prevent knocking).

12. In 1973, OPEC initiated the first oil embargo (as a retaliation for America's support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war). The member countries of OPEC drastically reduced their oil production, which raised world oil prices catastrophically. It threw the whole world into an "energy crisis" and seriously hurt the American economy.

13. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created government incentives to help develop alcohol-fuel production, and by 1984 the United States had 163 ethanol refineries producing almost 600 million gallons of ethanol fuel that year.

14. In the late 80s and early 90s a global oil surplus drove gasoline prices very low, putting many American ethanol plants into bankruptcy. By the end of 1985, only 74 American ethanol refineries remained in business.

15. From the late 90s until now, the ethanol and methanol industries have been making a comeback. Ethanol alone employs 400,000 Americans today, and that's with only a very small percentage of flex fuel cars on the road. Imagine what could happen with the passing of the Open Fuel Standard Act.

If you'd like to help make that happen, click here to get started.

The list above was edited from the more complete article, Timeline of Alcohol Fuels.

Read more: Different Kinds of Alcohol Fuels.

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