History of Biofuels, Chapter One, in B.P. Singh, ed., Biofuels Crops: Production, Physiology and Genetics, CABI, 2013.
By Bill Kovarik
Biofuels were humanity’s first liquid fuels. They include vegetable oils, animal fats, ethanol from crops, and methanol and turpentine from wood. All of these predate the general use of petroleum for illumination, cooking, heating and transportation (Bailey, 1975). During the early stages of the industrial revolution, biofuels powered the first lamps and internal combustion engines. The shift from biofuel to petroleum products like kerosene and gasoline as primary fuel source took place in the 1860s, for oil lamps, and in the early 20th century, for automotive fuels. The shift was gradual in Europe but rapid in the US due to differences in tax policies. Biofuels have continued to be used, straight or in blends with petroleum products, as fuels for diesel and spark ignition engines throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Biofuels have been especially useful as additives for gasoline in order to safely improve fuel octane.
During the 20th century, biofuels were employed in most countries, especially during wartime emergencies or when there was concern about national energy self-sufficiency. Although biofuels like ethanol and vegetable oils tend to be somewhat more expensive than petroleum in global markets, the issue of expense is not merely a short term market problem but also a long-term issue involving environment, agriculture and national security trade-offs.
Biofuels have been used in some form over four broad historical epochs:
1) Until the mid-19th century, as primary lamp and cooking fuels until the advent of petroleum and other competing energy forms such as gas and electric lighting;
2) Around the early 20th century, for internal combustion engines, when fuel quality and petroleum depletion were serious concerns;
3) In the mid- to late-20th century, for internal combustion engines, when international oil politics, especially the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, spurred national energy security investments; and
4) In the early 21st century, for internal combustion engines, when global concerns about climate change, biodiversity and sustainability framed the larger context of energy research and policy debates.
Research into biofuels has progressed steadily over more than a century concentrated in fields of agriculture, automotive and chemical engineering. Although the research was often overshadowed by political debates, scientists have understood that their work has the potential to shape these policies over the long run. Biofuels research can be characterized into: 1) optimizing production of agricultural, forest and aquatic biomass resources; 2) improving the conversion of traditional starch and sugar crops (first generation) and cellulosic materials (second generation) via microbial and thermal methods; and 3) testing of biofuels for engine compatibility and emissions modeling (Bente, 1984). Novel approaches for more direct low-energy production of renewable alkenes have been suggested as characterizing a third or next generation for biofuels (Kovarik, 2009). Other horizons include use of relatively limitless marine biomass systems and direct production of hydrogen from photosynthetic processes.
The practical aims of biofuels researchers have historically been to assist in rural economic development; to increase national energy and economic security; and to provide cleaner (“reformulated”) gasoline by replacing octane-enhancing additives like tetraethyl lead and benzene, which are public health hazards.
On a somewhat more idealistic level, scientists have searched for methods to use solar energy in liquid fuel form in order to live within energy “income” as opposed to squandering fossil fuel “capital.” Many of the great scientists and engineers of the 20th century expressed enthusiastic support for biofuels, including Rudolph Diesel, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Harry Ricardo and Charles F. Kettering (Kovarik, 1998).
Biofuels such as ethanol and vegetable oils may have serious drawbacks, especially in situations where they may compete with food or food crops. It’s significant that similar concerns have historically guided biofuels development, especially in Europe during World War II and in Asia in the 1950s. Another serious but more recent concern involves the loss of biodiversity when tropical forests are sacrificed for biofuels plantations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Like any technology, biofuels hold both promise and peril, and it is a mark of their increasing significance that the debate over biofuels has become more contentious in the early decades of the 21st century. Hope exists that policy initiatives facilitating the social construction of this technology can curb the worst potential abuses. This hope is particularly animated by a high level of scientific concern that renewable energy technologies need to be deployed on a broad scale in order to shift away from fossil energy dependence, promote rural development and, in the process, stave off the worst impacts of climate change over the coming decades and centuries (Gomez, 2008).
2 Biofuels for Illumination in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries
Forms of liquid energy derived from renewable plant material were well known and widely used for many thousands of years, and by the early 1700s, lamps fueled by vegetable oils and fats lit up the major streets in European and American cities (Crosby, 2006). New kinds of lamps, such as Ami Argand’s 1783 carbureted design, contributed to better street and home lighting.
Among the biofuels available in the 1800s were whale oil ($1.30 to $2.50 per gallon at the time), lard oil (90 cents per gallon), and camphene (at $.50 per gallon). Camphene was a somewhat irregular blend of ethanol, turpentine and camphor oil (Williamson, 1959). In the 1830s, camphene “easily took the lead as the illuminant” because it was “a decided improvement on other oils then in use,” especially lard oils, according to a lamp manufacturer’s “History of Light” (Welsbach, 1909). By 1860, thousands of distilleries produced tens of millions of gallons of alcohol per year for lighting in the US and Europe (Brachvogel, 1907).
Most existing histories of energy mistakenly depict a direct transition from whale oil to kerosene in the mid-19th century, when, in fact, a large and diverse market for lamps and fuels was in place long before petroleum was introduced. Although whale oil was one of the significant fuel industries in the early to mid- 19th century, it was fairly small in comparison to others. Whale oil use peaked in the US at around 15 to 18 million gallons in 1847 (Starbuck, 1876), but the market for camphene was far larger in the U.S. at around 90 million gallons.
In 1862, the US Congress imposed a tax of $2.08 per gallon on alcohol as part of the Internal Revenue Act to pay for the US Civil War. The tax was meant to apply to beverage alcohol, but without any specific exemption, it also applied to camphene as well. The tax crushed competition from biofuels and provided an important boost for the petroleum industry.
“The imposition of the internal-revenue tax on distilled spirits … increased the cost of this ‘burning fluid’ beyond the possibility of using it in competition with kerosene..,” said Rufus F. Herrick, an engineer with the Edison Electric Testing Laboratory who wrote one of the first books on the use of alcohol fuel (Herrick, 1907). The tax “had the effect of upsetting [the distilleries] and in some cases destroying them,” said US Internal Revenue Service commissioner David A. Wells in 1872 (U.S. Senate, 1907). The effect was “disastrous to great industries,” according to a chemical engineer of the era. (Tweedy, 1917).
2.1 German biofuels programs 1890 − 1916
The competition between petroleum and biofuel ethanol was quite different in Europe, where there were no tax barriers holding back industrial uses of ethanol. With few domestic oil reserves, German and French governments wanted to develop alternatives to petroleum. In addition, European governments were attempting to strike a balance between conservative agrarians who wanted strong farm markets and the progressive urbanites who wanted cheap food. Both groups could be served by creating rural value-added industries using surplus farm products.
Germany created the world’s first large-scale biofuels industry in the decades before World War I as a way to promote rural development and national self-sufficiency. German Kaiser Wilhelm found he could “satisfy the discontented agrarians” by encouraging the use of alcohol fuel made from potatoes (London Times, 1902). The German program involved tariffs on imported oil, farm distillery construction, promotion of ethanol fueled appliances, and research into ethanol fueled trucks, automobiles and locomotives. Beginning in 1899, the program was administered by the Centrale fur Spiritus Verwerthung (Office of Alcohol Aales). In 1903, the Reichstag approved a tariff on oil to expand the farm ethanol production infrastructure. Potato alcohol was seen as the “final solution of the oil problem and the means by which the grasp of the great [Standard oil] monopoly will be broken” (New York Times, 1903). A network of small farm “Materialbrennereien” distilleries was put in place. Estimates of its size vary. By one 1906 account, some 72,000 distilleries operated, of which 57,000 were small farm “Materialbrennereien” stills producing a total of 27 million gallons (New York Times, 1906). Another account, from 1914, put the number at 6,000 distilleries producing 66 million gallons of alcohol per year (Nathan, 1928).
The German government also promoted ethanol-fueled household appliances such as “spirit” lamps, water heaters, laundry irons and cooking stoves. By one estimate, some 95,000 alcohol fueled stoves and 37,000 spirit lamps were made in Germany by 1902 (Tweedy, 1917).
The nationalistic aims of the alcohol fuel movement were clear. “To Kaiser William II, it seems, we are indebted for the great, new industry,” said a New York Times magazine writer in 1906. “Not that he discovered the fuel, but that he forced its use on Germany. The Kaiser was enraged at the Oil Trust of his country, and offered prizes to his subjects and cash assistance … to adapt [alcohol] to use in the industries” (New York Times, 1906).
Germany’s “Materialbrennereien” program was an early approach to household and small-scale energy systems that would be replaced in coming decades with electricity. Attempts to export the program met with interest but not as much government-level enthusiasm. An exhibit developed in Germany around 1900 was devoted to alcohol powered automobiles, farm machinery and a wide variety of lamps, stoves, heaters, laundry irons, hair curlers, coffee roasters and every conceivable household appliance and agricultural engine powered by alcohol. (Automobile-Club de France, 1902). The exhibit traveled to France, Italy and Spain between 1901 and 1904, and was then sent to the U.S. and displayed in Norfolk, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland in 1907 and 1908. (Lucke, 1907).
2.2 US repeals tax on biofuels in 1906
The German and French push for an agriculturally based fuel generated a great deal of interest in the United States, leading at first to an 1896 congressional investigation and a decade of debate over the folly of having taxed industrial alcohol off the market (U.S. Congress, 1897). By 1905 it was common for Americans to read about German potato alcohol winning markets for farmers in the battle against the Standard Oil monopoly (New York Times, 1905).
The U.S. oil industry was held is disdain in the early 20th century for its monopolistic and underhanded business practices, and it was not difficult for the US tax on fuel alcohol to be easily repealed in May, 1906. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt supported the repeal and said: “Standard Oil Company has, largely by unfair or unlawful methods, crushed out home competition. It is highly desirable that an element of competition should be introduced by … putting alcohol used in the arts and manufactures [s1] upon the free list” (Washington Post, 1906).
Thousands of news articles expressed the hope that, like their counterparts in Germany and France, American farmers could recapture some of the markets being lost to the new automotive industry. If horses were being replaced by horseless carriages, perhaps farmers could at least grow the fuel to supply them. However, this proved more difficult than expected due to remaining regulatory, market and cultural barriers. Regulatory barriers included the high cost of meeting regulations for “denaturing” (rendering alcohol non-potable). Market barriers included the low price of kerosene and gasoline, especially in regions where serious competition emerged. And cultural barriers included state-by-state (and later, national) prohibition of beverage alcohol. In theory, the distilleries could have switched to fuel alcohol, and indeed some (like Henry Ford) argued that they should (Washington Post, 1916). However, in practice, prohibitionist politics and the potential for lawbreaking worked against the conversion of beverage distilleries to fuel production in the U.S. in the 1912 – 1932 timeframe.
Strong interest in biofuels continued during this period. Enthusiastic endorsements by scientists and engineers of all kinds were commonplace. Typical was a statement by inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who wrote in National Geographic in 1917 that ethanol “makes a beautiful, clean and efficient fuel… that can be manufactured from corn [maize] 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” (Bell, 1917). It was a “universal assumption,” said Scientific American in 1920, “that (ethyl) alcohol in some form will be a constituent of the motor fuel of the future” (Scientific American, 1920).
2.3 British interest in biofuels 1907 − 1930s
The apparent scarcity of oil resources was another major reason for interest in biofuels at the beginning of the 20th century, and a 1907 British commission noted that “a famine in petrol appears to be inevitable”(Motor Union, 1907). Surveying the possible substitutes, the commission said: “Of all the liquid fuels which have been considered by the Committee, the one holding out the greatest promise is alcohol,” since it was renewable and production could be “unlimited in any amount.” The optimism about biofuels was so widespread that even a 1915 book for youngsters, entitled Modern Inventions, had a chapter entitled “Alcohol Motors and the Fuel of the Future” sandwiched amid the zeppelins and submarines (Johnson, 1915).
Although British foreign policy focused mainly on securing supplies of petroleum from the Middle East, an Alcohol Motor Fuel Committee was created in 1914 as part of the defense research effort (London Times, 1914). The committee was charged with considering sources of supply, methods of manufacture and costs of production for alcohol fuel (Fox, 1924). The commission concluded in 1921 that the cost of alcohol in comparison to petroleum made alcohol a likely fuel only in tropical and remote areas of the world where sugar cane, cassava, Jerusalem artichokes and other crops would give a high yield per acre (London Times, 1921).
One committee member was Harry Ricardo, who at the time was one of world’s leading engine designers. In his pioneering 1923 book, The High Speed Internal Combustion Engine, Ricardo said:
“It is a matter of absolute necessity to find an alternative fuel. Fortunately, such a fuel is in sight in the form of alcohol; this is a vegetable product whose consumption involves no drain on the world’s storage and which, in tropical countries at all events, can ultimately be produced in quantities sufficient to meet the world’s demand, at all events at the present rate of consumption. By the use of a fuel derived from vegetation, mankind is adapting the sun’s heat to the development of motive power, as it becomes available from day to day; by using mineral fuels, he is consuming a legacy – and a limited legacy at that – of heat stored away many thousands of years ago. In the one case he is, as it were, living within his income, in the other he is squandering his capital. It is perfectly well known that alcohol is an excellent fuel, and there is little doubt but that sufficient supplies could be produced within the tropical regions of the British empire” (Ricardo, 1923).
2.4 French biofuels programs 1900 − 1930s
The French ethanol fuel program was supported by the Ministry of Agriculture before World War I, and French biofuel production rose from 2.7 million gallons in 1900 to 5.7 million gallons in 1903 and 8.3 million in 1905. Its main purpose was to help support French sugar beet markets and curtail the rising surplus of many other crops. Another concern was the increase in oil imports from Russia and the US, along with the lack of domestic oil reserves. However, without a contentious agrarian movement, the French did not embark on a large-scale distillery building program like the Germans.
After World War I, a French committee recommended that a “national fuel” of 40%-50% ethanol with gasoline be created, and on Feb. 28, 1923, Article Six was passed requiring gasoline importers to buy alcohol for 10% blends from the State Alcohol Service (Fox, 1924). Administering the alcohol law was the Comptoir des Ventes du Carburant National. The mandatory blending level was revised to 25% alcohol in 1928. Several brands were marketed; “Carburant Poids Lourds” (truck fuel), “Tourisme” and “Supercarburant.” By 1931 blending stocks had passed 87 million liters and the Alcohol Service acquired even more alcohol from the struggling wine industry. Biofuels use peaked in 1935 at 406 million liters, accounting for over 7% of all fuel use, and declined to 194 million liters by 1937 due to poor harvests (Egloff, 1939).
The French, British and German biofuels laws and research had a worldwide impact. Engineers in Asia and Latin America who studied in European universities took home ideas about national self-sufficiency, fuel improvement and agrarian support that would form the basis of biofuels programs in their own countries during the 1930s and into the 1970s (New York Times, 1931).
3 Biofuels for Internal Combustion Engines
At least a dozen inventors tried to develop some form of internal combustion engine between the 17th century and the early 19th century, according to historian Lyle Cummins (Cummins, 1989). The first authentic internal combustion engine using volatile liquid fuel, a carburetor and a spark-ignition piston engine was developed by U.S. engineer Samuel Morey at the surprisingly early date of 1826. Morey’s engine ran on ethyl alcohol and turpentine (camphene) and powered a small boat at eight miles per hour up the Connecticut River. Morey remained relatively unknown because was never able to attract financing; only one prototype engine was ever built (Farell, 1915; Goodwin, 1931; Hardenberg, 1992).
A more successful figure was German inventor Nicholas August Otto. In 1860, Otto used ethyl alcohol as a fuel in an early engine because it was widely available for spirit lamps throughout Europe. He devised a carburetor which, like Morey’s, heated the alcohol to help it vaporize when the engine was started. But a January 1861 patent application with the Kingdom of Prussia was turned down, probably because the principle of heated alcohol carburetion was already being widely used in spirit lamps (Cummins, 1989). It is interesting to note that Otto’s financing came from Eugen Langen, who owned a sugar refining company that probably had links to the alcohol lamp fuel markets of Europe. Of course, the Otto & Langen Company went on to success in the 1870s by producing stationary piston engines which were usually powered by coal gas. The four-stroke “Otto-cycle” engine, for the automobile, was developed in the 1880s and was fueled primarily with gasoline, which was a cheap byproduct of the kerosene refining process at the time. Still, like most early engines, it was adaptable to a variety of fuels such as alcohol or benzene.
German inventor Rudolph Diesel also designed his compression ignition “diesel” engine for heavy fuels from oil, but he also found that peanut, castor and palm oils worked quite well. ”One cannot predict what part these (vegetable) oils will play in the colonies in the future,” he wrote in 1912. “In any case, they make it certain that motor-power can still be produced from the heat of the sun, which is always available for agricultural purposes, even when all our natural stores of solid and liquid fuels are exhausted” (Knothe, 2011).
American automotive engineers also favored the use of biofuels for a variety of reasons. In 1906, one auto industry representative of the Detroit Board of Commerce told a US Senate committee that alcohol was “preferable” to gasoline because it was safer, “absolutely clean and sanitary,” and because “artificial shortages” could not raise the price in the future. In fact, the biggest problem for auto makers, the representative said, was not so much cost as the question of long term supply (U. S. Senate, 1907)
Among American engineers was Henry Ford, who was well informed about the German alcohol fuel program and hoped a similar program could contribute to rural prosperity in the U.S. (Wik, 1963). In 1906, when the alcohol tax was repealed, Ford said that carburetors on his Model T cars would be designed to use either gasoline or alcohol (Washington Post, 1906). When World War I threatened to create a gasoline shortage, “he announced in 1915 that … the new Fordson tractor would be designed to burn alcohol as well as gasoline; thus the supply of fuel would be unlimited” (Wik, 1963). In 1925, Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethyl alcohol was “the fuel of the future” which “is going to come from fruit like that sumac 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” (New York Times, 1925). Throughout his life, Ford hoped that these kinds of developments would bring on “the greatest era of prosperity and happiness we have ever known” (New York Times, 1938)
3.1 Farm Chemurgy in the United States, 1930s
Henry Ford’s ideas about alcohol fuels inspired a broader campaign for industrial uses for farm crops to help fight the Great Depression. The program was called “Farm Chemurgy” — literally meaning chemical work but actually aimed at industrializing agriculture through scientific research. At the time, agricultural research in the government and universities tended to be aimed at food production and not at opening new industrial markets for farm products, although some pioneering scientists, like George Washington Carver, had already seen the need. Politically, Chemurgy was a populist Republican alternative to Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s supply-constraining agricultural policies. While the Chemurgy movement had practical goals and a scientific vision for agriculture, it was also occasionally derailed by self-described saviors of the farmer and bitter political infighting (Wright, 1995).
Practical projects backed by the Chemurgy movement included the use of soybeans for plastics; Southern pine for paper pulp; and guayule for rubber. But the signature and most controversial project was the use of ethanol as an octane booster in gasoline. In 1936, following a series of conferences sponsored by Ford in Detroit, many felt that the time had come to compete directly with the oil industry. An experimental alcohol manufacturing and blending program began in Atchison, Kansas. By 1937 motorists from Indiana to South Dakota were being urged to use its product, “Agrol.” Two types were available — Agrol 5, with five to seven percent alcohol, and Agrol 10, with 12.5- to 17.5 percent alcohol . “Try a tankfull — you’ll be thankful,” the Agrol brochures said (National Agrol, 1938). The blend was sold with a lot of initial enthusiasm at 2,000 service stations. However, Agrol plant managers complained of sabotage, market manipulation and bitter infighting from the oil industry.
By 1939, the Atchison Agrol plant closed its doors. The experiment had failed, but it was not the end of the story. The Atchison plant and others would be rebuilt a few years later to make fuels and chemicals, and especially synthetic rubber, during World War II. (Bernton, 2010)
3.2 The octane paradox and fuel additives, 1920s – present
Early in the 20th century, engineers who were thinking about the relative advantages of ethanol and gasoline turned up an interesting paradox. They found that ethanol could be used in both high and low compression engines, but gasoline could only be used in low compression engines. If gasoline was used in high compression engines, the engine would knock. If ethanol was used in a low compression engine, fuel consumption would go up. But if the fuel was matched to the engine – that is, ethanol in high compression and gasoline in lower compression engines — both would have about the same fuel consumption and both would run smoothly.
Between 1907 and 1909, the US Navy, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Geological Survey performed over 2000 engine and fuel tests and reached some of these conclusions (Lucke, 1907; Strong, 1909). The Edison Electric Testing Laboratory and Columbia University found the same thing. “A gallon of alcohol will develop substantially the same power in an internal combustion engine as a gallon of gasoline… owing to the superior efficiency of operation,” said the Edison report (New York Times, 1906).
Efficiency, at the time, is what would later become known as the “octane” rating. Gasoline’s octane rating was around 55 in the post World War I era, while ethanol had about double the octane rating, at 110. A high octane fuel could be used in a more efficient high-compression engine. As a result, auto racers preferred high compression engines fueled by ethanol and benzene, despite the somewhat higher cost of fuel, while regular motorists used heavier, lower-powered engines fueled by cheaper gasoline. The cost differentials generally amounted to about 1/3 more for ethanol, although this varied considerably from country to country and time to time. Frequently enough, ethanol was cheaper than gasoline, especially in rural areas or in the tropics.
In the post – World War I era, demand for fuel was accelerating while the quality of gasoline declined as lower quality oil reserves were brought into the market. Geologists estimated that only 20 or 30 years worth of oil were left in the U.S. and a “gasoline famine” was likely (Smith, 1920). The USGS estimated US oil reserves at seven billion barrels while consumption was at 330 million barrels per year and rapidly increasing (Pratt, 1945). Automotive engineers worried about “a calamity, seriously disorganizing an indispensable system of transportation” (Scientific American, 1919).
One technological path would involve building low-compression engines that were more tolerant of low-grade fuels, but far less efficient. A piece in Scientific American (1919) said “The burden falls upon the engine, it must adapt itself to less volatile fuel, and it must be made to burn the fuel with less waste…. Automotive engineers must turn their thoughts away from questions of speed and weight… and comfort and endurance” and focus on averting the calamity.”
At this technological crossroads, many European and American engineers disagreed with the idea of downgrading the engine and worked on various solutions to the problem. In 1919, Charles F. Kettering, then vice president of research for General Motors, urged engineers to avoid compromising engine design (as Scientific American had suggested). Instead, they should improve the fuel and raise compression. Kettering (1919) opined: “Geologists tell us that at our present rate of consumption the domestic supply of crude oil will be exhausted in less than 15 years. If we could sufficiently raise the compression of our motors … we could double the mileage and thereby lengthen this period to 30 years.”
To raise engine compression, Kettering suggested two ways to improve fuel: “high percentage” and “low percentage” gasoline additives. Blending gasoline with twenty percent ethanol or up to forty percent benzene was an example of the high percentage solution. The low percentage solution, on the other hand, could be some small volume additive easily blended at the petroleum refinery. In 1921, Kettering and associates discovered the anti-knock effect of tetraethyl lead. They began marketing it in 1923 through their “Ethyl” partnership with Standard Oil Co, despite vehement public objections from health experts at the time and throughout subsequent decades. Three grams of tetraethyl lead would raise fuel octane value of a gallon of gasoline by five points, and since it was a relatively cheap way to improve fuel, leaded gasoline came to dominate world fuel markets. However, leaded gasoline was finally forced off the markets by international public health agencies around the turn of the 21st century (DePasquale, 2011)
What’s not well understood is that Kettering’s long term strategy, at the time, continued to involve both the low percentage solution (leaded gasoline) and the high percentage solution (biofuels blends) over the long term. According to a 1936 du Pont legal study: ” … An important special motive for this (tetraethyl lead) research was General Motors’ desire to fortify itself against the exhaustion or prohibitive cost of the gasoline supply, which was then believed to be impending in about twenty-five years; the thought being that the high compression motors which should be that time have been brought into general use if knocking could be overcome could more advantageously be switched to [ethyl] alcohol” (Wescott, 1936).
British researchers, lacking commercial ties to Standard Oil, began to consider fuels from the standpoint of the highest useful compression ratio that could be achieved without engine knocking. In Britain, Harry Ricardo observed that knock was reduced when fuels had high levels of benzene, methanol or ethanol. Ethanol had a 7.5 value, as opposed to commercial gasoline then available at 4.5 to 6. He concluded that the low burning rate of alcohol lessens the tendency to knock, and that, using toluene as the reference point at a 100 anti-knock value, ethanol had a 130 rating – the highest of any other fuel (Ricardo, 1921).
Ricardo never abandoned alcohol as a way to improve a fuel’s highest useful compression ratio. In 1921 he patented racing fuels RD1 and RD2 (for Ricardo Discol) that contained methanol and ethanol, acetone and small amounts of water. These were widely used on race tracks throughout Europe and the US in the 1920s and 30s, but were regarded as a “pleasant foible” rather like the smell of castor oil around the race track (Pleeth, 1954). Still, his advocacy of ethanol for general use was challenged in the 1920s by technical problems with alcohol production, such as the need for better azeotropic processing and competition from tetraethyl lead.
As the technical problems cleared up, and ethanol blending could be more easily accomplished in the 1930s, Ricardo worked with National Distillers Co. and Cleveland Oil Co. on an alcohol fuel blend called “Discol” that soon became very popular on a commercial level (SAE, 1992). The formula was said to have “monopolized” racing fuels. Ads in the London Times boasted that “Racing Motors Run on Cleveland * Ricardo * Discol” (Cleveland Discol, 1935). Hundreds of other advertisements and articles about Cleveland Discol are found in the British newspapers and magazines from the 1930s until 1968. The brand was historically the second-longest of any commercial alcohol fuel blending program in the world, after Brazil’s program, which started in the 1930s.
In the long run, the most effective solutions to the octane paradox turned out to be improvements to gasoline refining, especially the Houdry catalytic process (in place in the 1930s) and the Haensel / Universal catalytic reforming process (in place in the late 1940s − early 1950s). These brought gasoline octane ratings up to the low 80s by the 21st century. And yet, by the 21st century, the standard gasoline pool from a refinery still averaged about 84 Octane, and some additive or additional severe reforming process would still be needed for octane to reach the minimum standard of 87 or higher.
Additive choices today are limited by economic and public health concerns. Severe reforming at the refinery is expensive and increases the amount of carcinogenic benzene, toluene and xylene, known as “air toxics.” Other petroleum based additives, such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), present severe water pollution problems (Mireya, 2009). For this reason, many countries — even those with large oil reserves and petroleum refinery capacity — continue a long historical tradition of using agriculturally derived ethanol blends in gasoline.
4. Worldwide Experience with Biofuels 1920s – 1930s
Most industrial and developing countries have a long history of producing biofuels, especially blending ethanol from sugar or starch crops into gasoline. However, ethanol from paper processes, gasses and liquids from wood pyrolysis units, and vegetable oils for diesel engines were also common. So, too, were the familiar concerns about biofuels that surface today, such as questions about using food for fuel, or about developing biofuels on an industrial scale for export versus developing industry for import substitution. In addition, many of the same politically motivated objections to biofuels typical today are also found in the historical record, including technical problems with fuel blending or claims that only the marketplace, and not government policies, can or should animate energy choices.
4.1 Brazil and Philippines develop new markets for sugar cane 1900s – 1930s
Following the agrarian movements in Germany, France and the United States, biofuels were most economically attractive in countries that produced sugarcane in the early 20th century. With the high cost of gasoline imports, and readily available sugarcane processing equipment, it was natural that developing nations would develop biofuels. Two that were especially active were Brazil and the Philippines.
The Brazilian program is usually said to have started around 1919 when the governor of the northeastern state of Pernambuco ordered official vehicles to operate on ethanol, and by 1921 distilleries in the state produced 2.2 million gallons of ethanol. A year later, the Brazilian Congress of Coal and other National Fuels recommended forming alcohol cooperative societies equipped with fermenting, distilling, and denaturing plants, with tank wagon for distribution. They also recommended organization of alcohol marketing agencies throughout Brazil; government vehicle use of ethanol; and reduced taxes for ethanol (Fox, 1924).
The first major alcohol fuel plant was built in Recife (Pernambuco state) in June of 1927. Brands of alcohol and gasoline blended fuel included Azuline and Motorin, which were said to be popular throughout the sugarcane growing regions of Brazil (Boletim Enfoque, 2000). As alcohol production grew and proved profitable, Brazil contemplated a national fuel program. In 1931, Brazilian engineer Eduardo do Sabino de Oliviera said that he “had already perfected a fuel consisting of alcohol mixed with other chemicals which he is satisfied will replace gasoline” (New York Times, 1931). Difficulties included redesigning the carburetor and additives to help with cold starting. Sabino later said that the Brazilian alcohol program of the 1930s was inspired by the French biofuels program of the 1920s, since he and colleagues studied there as engineering students. Sabino and colleagues, in turn, helped initiate the Proalcool program a generation later.
By 1931 a Brazilian law required gasoline importers to buy alcohol in volumes of 5% of their imports under the supervision of the Minister of Agriculture. At the time, gasoline cost about 41 cents per gallon while alcohol was less than half the cost (New York Times, 1931). The number of Brazilian distilleries producing fuel-grade ethanol increased from just one in 1933 to 31 by 1939 and to 54 by 1945. Fuel alcohol production rose from 100,000 liters in 1933 to 51.5 million liters in 1937, or about 7 percent of the nation’s fuel consumption.
To help keep track of research, promote biofuels and lend technical assistance, Brazil’s Instituto do Assucar e do Alcool was established in 1933. Sales tax exemptions for blends and reductions on taxes of high compression motors for pure alcohol use were also instituted. Much of the interest in alcohol fuels came from sugarcane planters, who often used the pure alcohol engines. But blends of various proportions were also marketed, including a 90% alcohol 10% gasoline blend, a 70% alcohol and 30% di-ethyl ether blend, and a 12% alcohol 88% gasoline blend.
In the Philippines, alcohol was apparently first used as an engine fuel around 1914 at the Calamba Sugar Estate, an American-operated sugar and coconut plantation. Some technical problems, especially cold starting, were noted. The Philippine Motor Alcohol Corp. was incorporated in Aug. 1922 in Manila. A variety of fuel types were tested, and by 1931, “Gasonol” (spelled with an “n”) blends of 20% ethanol and 5% kerosene was being used on a commercial scale (Fox, 1924).
Unlike Brazil and France, where ethanol blending with gasoline was mandatory, the Philippine policy was to use sugarcane ethanol as a pure fuel in autos, buses, trucks and railway locomotives. Studebaker, McCormack, General Motors and International Harvester sold pure alcohol-fueled cars and trucks, advertising them as “more economical . . . (and) free from carbon.”
Three large bus companies including Manila’s Batangas Transportation Co. were running their buses on 100% ethanol, while buses and trucks on Negros and Panay also used pure alcohol as a common fuel. No compulsory blending or tax advantages were given alcohol fuels in the Philippines, but one U.S. Commerce Department official commented, “The sugar interests have felt reasonably well satisfied.” Ethanol fuel use reached 90 million liters in 1939.
4.2 Other biofuels programs 1930s
Brazil and the Philippines were not unique. At least 30 industrial nations had some kind of tax incentive or mandatory ethanol blending program in place by 1932 (Fulmer, 1932). Most were either in sugarcane growing tropical regions, where alcohol could be produced cheaply, or in Europe, where octane-boosting additives were needed for high-compression automotive engines.
Cuba, for instance, produced about 20 million liters per year in 1922 for a blend of 80% gasoline and 20% alcohol called “Espiritu,” and the blend amounted to half the gasoline sold. Standard Oil president Walter Teagle at one point noted with alarm that in Cuba, “Industrial alcohol is in very substantial competition with gasoline.” The price of alcohol in raw state was 21 to 22 cents a gallon while gasoline sold for 35.5 to 36 cents a gallon (Wall Street Journal, 1923).
In Panama, import taxes on gasoline favored locally produced ethanol, but a “price war” kept distilleries from expanding their markets in the early 1930s. And in Puerto Rico, an Arecibo based company sold “Alco-Motor” at a price of 25 cents a gallon — ten cents cheaper than gasoline for about two years, until the price of its feedstock of molasses suddenly went up and the price of gasoline suddenly dropped (Fox, 1924).
In Europe, skepticism about leaded gasoline was one reason for the widespread adoption of alcohol blending in gasoline from the late 1920s to the 1940s. “These lead halides, being comparatively soluble, are obviously toxic,” said Myer Coplans in the British Medical Journal. “Legislation and regulation upon this subject are urgently called for…” (Coplans, 1928).
In the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), “Dynakol,” a mixture of about 50% alcohol, 20% benzene and 30% gasoline was typical. Some 66 million liters, or 12% of the total fuel supply, were sold in 1936. The government subsidized low cost power alcohol with a tax on beverage alcohol. Hungary had “Moltaco,” a blend of 20% ethanol that was made compulsory by royal decree in 1929. Poland had a state alcohol monopoly that was financed by a five-year advance purchase by Standard Oil Company. About 1,500 small alcohol plants serving farm communities were included in a network centered around the Kutno Chemical Works. In Sweden, ethanol production was confined to paper mills, and a 25 percent ethanol and 75 percent gasoline blend called “Lattbentyl” was standard. (Fulmer, 1932; United Nations, 1952)
4.3 War emergency programs 1930s – 1940s
During World War I and World War II, the French, English and Americans were said to have “floated to victory on a wave of oil.” However, German self-sufficiency in alcohol fuel helped extend World War I. “Every motor car in the empire was adapted to run on alcohol,” according to Tweedy. ”It is possible that Germany would have been beaten [by 1917] if production of alcohol had not formed an important part of the agricultural economy” (Tweedy, 1917). By the 1940s, the Germany once again tried to avoid oil shortages, but at that point coal-based fuels were more feasible on an industrial basis. In 1942, the peak year for Germany’s synthetic fuel production, about 1.7 billion liters of fuel per year came from coal (which, we must note, often involved concentration camp labor and crimes against humanity). About 267 million liters of fuel ethanol, mostly from potatoes, was also produced. All told, 54% of the pre-war German fuel production was derived from non-petroleum sources, of which only 8% was ethanol from renewable sources (Egloff, 1942).
Although the allied armies tended to have plenty of oil for the war effort, the scarcity of oil resources elsewhere tended to promote substitution and innovation. Among the many substitute biofuels in Europe during World War II were the wood gas generators typical from France to Finland called “gasogens.” The units heated wood to release combustible gasses, and although nearly three times as efficient than wood-to-ethanol systems, the gasses created high levels of engine wear (Reed, 1975).
The war forced innovation in other ways as well. In China and India, where food was scarce, inedible molasses from sugar cane was usually turned into alcohol for fuel. India’s Utter Pradesh province passed a 20 percent law mandating alcohol bending, but all fuels were scarce during the war. In China, “Benzolite” a mixture of 55% alcohol, 40% benzene and 5% kerosene was widely sold in the 1930s. When war broke out, molasses distillers especially were turned towards ethanol production and often provided the only form of fuel available. A spokesman for the Chia Yee Solvent Works noted at a United Nations conference on power alcohol in 1952 that “the shortage of gasoline was so acute it became impossible for civilians to get any amount of gas.” At that time the use of alcohol was no longer a question of costs or efficiency, but of necessity (United Nations, 1952). There is at least one report of a diesel- powered bus that ran on a number of vegetable oils, including those extracted from peanuts, tea leaves, poppy seeds, tung, cotton seed and cabbage seed. Many American soldiers in China in WWII remember the potent, potable alcohol that doubled as a fuel for their jeeps and generators (Bernton, 2010). And Joseph Needham, a British scientist on a mission to China, was a “strong believer” in power alcohol and found his ethanol-powered truck had far more power than wood-fueled gasogens (Winchester, 2008).
The Brazilian experience was typical of sugarcane countries in Latin America. There, ethanol production increased from 51 to 77 million liters per year between 1937 and 1944. Mandatory blending levels rose as high as 50 percent at the height of the war, when submarine attacks ravaged world oil-tanker fleets. As the war ended, cheap imported oil was once more readily available and alcohol blends were marketed sporadically, mostly to offset sugar surplus (Pischinger, 1979). Blending continued intermittently through the l950s as an outlet for sugar surpluses and began again in 1975 with the National Alcohol Program (PNA).
After the war in India, about 8 million liters alcohol was used in 1946, increasing to 9 million at the peak use in 1948. Another 20 million liters were used in blends, out of about I billion liters of gasoline used in 1951. Indian leaders were conscious of possible “food or fuel” conflicts and prohibited the use of grains and root crops as feedstocks, but also felt that the power alcohol industry had to be protected from petroleum interests. The 1948 “Indian Alcohol Act” mandated 20% blending where feasible, but it was not widely adopted (United Nations, 1952).
During World War II, Philippine ethanol production reached a standstill, but climbed back to 30 million liters by 1950. A four-year plan was then in place to produce 120 million liters, or 20% of the nation’s fuel supply, but it was abandoned as new sources of cheap oil became available. According to the Philippine delegate to a 1952 United Nations power alcohol conference: “The use of blended motor fuel was abandoned, for the simple reason that the gasoline interests fought hard to kill it. After such a very sad experience, we fully realize that proper legislation similar to that in India should be adopted in the Philippines.”
The main problem, though, was the increasing availability of cheap oil from the Middle East. By the 1950s most alternative fuels programs had been abandoned as far too costly in comparison. Only in the United Kingdom did blends of alcohol and gasoline continue to be sold by the Cleveland Discol company through the 1960s.
5. Biofuels and the Global Energy Crisis 1970s – 2000s
In the 25 years after World War II, global oil consumption grew by five- and- a- half times, and the world became dependent on cheap oil from the Middle East. Discussions about raising prices preoccupied meetings of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for years, but in 1973, a Middle Eastern war conflated tight oil supplies into an international energy crisis. It began on October 6, 1973, when Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries launched an attack on Israel in an attempt to regain land lost in the 1967 war. By October 17, 1973, as the attack faltered and U.S. military aid flowed to the Israelis, Arab oil ministers gathered in Kuwait agreed to institute a total oil embargo against the United States and other countries friendly to Israel (Salameh, 2004). They would drop production by five percent per month until their demands were met. The price of oil quadrupled, from $4.50 to $22.60 per barrel. The shortages created long gas lines and sparked panic buying the US and Europe. Although the embargo ended in March 1974, the U.S. gross national product (GNP) plunged 6% and unemployment doubled to 9% by 1975.
The first energy crisis also spurred a widespread search for alternative energy sources, especially the “Pro-Alcool” National Alcohol Program in Brazil in 1975, involving mandatory blending of about 20 percent ethanol in gasoline. Around the same time, states in the American Midwest, particularly Nebraska, began researching the potential of ethanol from corn (maize) in a blend with gasoline.
The second energy crisis took place when Iranian dissent grew into an October, 1978 strike in the nation’s oil refineries, shutting down five percent of world oil exports. This in turn grew into a violent revolution that overthrew the pro-western government of the Shah in January 1979. Once again, panicked buying led to price increases, this time up to $34.50 a barrel.
The Brazilian ethanol program began growing quickly but a proposed US ethanol program became mired in controversy and opposition from the oil industry. The Brazilian program was seen as an outgrowth of sugarcane growing traditions and was part of the economic movement towards import substitution and industrialization. It was also able to enlist the full support of Brazil’s automotive industry.
In the United States, the oil industry insisted that ethanol was an inferior fuel and that it caused insurmountable technical problems when blended with gasoline. Support for biofuels came mostly from a farm movement which saw ethanol in the light of farm prosperity and independence from the oil industry. Although the US auto industry was more inclined to back the oil industry, early proof that ethanol blending caused only minor engine problems that were easily solved came from both the Brazilian Pro-Alcool program and the Nebraska state Corn Products Utilization Committee, later known as the Gasohol Committee, which initiated a million miles of road tests on ethanol blends.
“Automotive companies were denouncing the idea of promoting biofuels on the grounds that they couldn’t be taken seriously,” said Scott Sklar, then an aide to Sen. Jacob Javits and today a renewable energy expert with the Stella Group. “Brazil’s move to subsidize their vast sugar industry and work with automotive engineers to make ethanol tolerant cars created immense tension in Washington,” Sklar said. “Biofuels advocates were able to point to the ‘Brazilian experience’ every time the US oil and auto industry said that it couldn’t be done or that it would never be successful” (Kovarik, 2006).
In 1980, in the waning months of his administration, President Jimmy Carter created a fledgling US ethanol program by signing a bill giving a 54 cent per gallon ethanol tax incentive and, at the same time, excluding Latin American ethanol from the U.S. market. These two pieces of legislation protected the U.S. ethanol industry through its infancy and up to the mid-1990s, when it grew to over one billion gallons per year of capacity.
5.1 Lead gas phase-out and oxygenate blending, 1980s – 2000s
The most important reason for the success of the corn (maize) based ethanol program in the US was the dilemma facing the oil industry after it lost its most effective (and polluting) octane additives. Tetra-ethyl lead (TEL), the ingredient in leaded gasoline, was removed from US fuel in the late 1970s (and internationally by 2012) for engineering and public health reasons.
To replace TEL in the 1980s, most unleaded gasoline was made using a petroleum refining process called “severe reforming” that boosted the levels of benzene, toluene and xylene (aromatic / BTX) compounds from 25 to as high as 40 percent of the fuel. High levels of these carcinogenic compounds in fuels and in automotive exhaust worried environmental policy makers. “Cars with catalytic converters are 99 percent cleaner than they were in 1970,” said C. Boyden Gray, a legal advisor to President George H.W. Bush in 1990. “But gasoline has gotten dirtier. It doesn’t have lead (TEL) but it is far dirtier for aromatics (BTX)” (Lyman, 1990).
The Bush administration worked with Congress to create the 1990 Clean Air Act and empower the Environmental Protection Agency to order the oil industry remove BTX “air toxics” from fuel. In many cases, the fuels would contain a class of octane boosting compounds called “oxygenates” that were far more benign than BTX or TEL. These included ethanol, methanol, and other alcohols. However, as the proposal wound its way through Congress, another oxygenate made from petroleum was included in the Clean Air Act. It was MTBE, (methyl tertiary-butyl ether). MTBE was made from natural gas and butane, both of which the industry possessed in abundance. So by the time regulations were written for reformulated gasoline, both ethanol and MTBE were to be used as octane boosting additives in gasoline.
The problem with MTBE, however, was that it fouled the water while cleaning the air. MTBE could be detected as a harsh chemical odor and taste in concentrations as low as 2 parts per billion. Minor leaks of the hydroscopic gasoline additive into a town’s water supply would make it undrinkable. By 2004, some 17 states had banned MTBE and cleanup costs for over 1,100 water systems were estimated at $24 billion (Environmental Working Group, 2004). One result of the MTBE fiasco was that in the absence of competition from the oil industry, ethanol production from corn (maize) ramped up very quickly, from 2 billion gallons per year in 2002 doubling by 2005, doubling again to eight billion gallons by 2008 and rising to 14 billion gallons by 2012 (Renewable Fuels Association, 2012).
5.2 Food OR fuel? Or food AND fuel?
The rapid expansion of the American corn ethanol program proved the resilience and flexibility of renewable energy systems, but it raised serious questions about the extent to which food crops can or should be used for fuel. Many of the questions had been raised in previous years, for example by Lester Brown in a 1980 Worldwatch Institute paper where he noted that the competition took place in an indirect form, putting pressure on crop prices, land use and infrastructure financing (Brown, 1980).
In 2007 Jean Zigler, special rapporteur for food rights at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said biofuel from food crops were a “crime against humanity” and called for a five-year moratorium until cellulosic biofuels processes could be developed (Ferrett, 2007; Kleiner, 2007). Later that year, other FAO officials said biofuels technologies held both promise and peril, and that it was up to the world community to put food and human needs first, local development including fuels second, and fuel exports third (Aguilar, 2007).
The food or fuel issue is more complex than it usually appears. The U.S. ethanol industry points out that corn ethanol production uses a type of corn fed to livestock. It’s rock-hard and not edible by humans. The ethanol industry removes the corn starch and adds yeast in the ethanol process. In the end, the leftover distillers grains have 90 percent of the protein that was originally on its way to livestock feeding pens. In the short run, then, corn ethanol is not a threat to international food supplies (RFA, 2011).
But the mid to long range problem is a far more serious concern, and the possibility that the volatile energy market will become bound up with the price of food is sobering to say the least. “If oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes,” said Lester Brown in a 2011 article in Foreign Policy. “And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union’s goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops” (Brown, 2011).
It is the same reason that people have been hoping for a cellulose ethanol industry – or a similar advanced non-food biofuels industry – for almost a century.
6. Cellulosic Biomass: Non-food Biofuels
When the 1952 United Nations conference on biofuels was organized in Lucknow, India, the speaker who was chosen to open the conference was Kanaiyalal Manekial Munshi, the governor of Uttar Pradesh. Munshi was a journalist, a literary scholar, and former agricultural minister who had launched a popular tree-planting celebration called Van Mahotsav only two years before. With characteristic eloquence, he explained the problem that would bedevil biofuels researchers for the next seven decades.
“In India — with a scarcity of food — grains and root crops cannot be utilized for the production of power alcohol,” Munshi said. “If our farm waste products or other cellulosic wastes like bagasse or wood chips … are utilized, it would greatly increase our capacity for substitute motor fuels and provide an additional stabilizing factor for our farm economy. Research, therefore, needs to be concentrated on such substitute raw materials” (Munshi, 1952).
As Munshi would go on to acknowledge, cellulose ethanol technology was relatively old; research had begun over a century beforehand. In 1819, French chemist Henri Braconnot discovered that a sulfuric acid treatment could convert straw, wood or cotton into glucose. And another French chemist, Anselme Payen, isolated and purified cellulose in 1838. As polymer chemistry came to be better understood, a variety of inventors found ways to use it in billiard balls, shirt collars and camera film in the 1870s and 1880s (Klemm, 2005). Cellulose seemed even more useful when, around 1900, scientists analyzed the composition of cellulose and understood that it could be broken down into glucose molecules and converted into a wide variety of chemicals and fuels. By World War I, two commercial cellulose-to-ethanol plants using acid hydrolysis had been built in Georgetown, North Carolina and Fullerton, Louisiana in the U.S. (Bente, 1984).
Around the early 20th century, news articles about cellulose as a feedstock for biofuels were common, reflecting not only advances in science but also hope for alternative biofuels in the face of a possible oil shortage. The Washington Post, for instance, said: “One of the most important of recent discoveries … is that ethyl alcohol … is so remarkably cheap that it can be obtained from ordinary sawdust (and) seems destined to solve the problem of motor fuel… Wood, then, in place of petroleum, is to be for (auto drivers) the future source of supply. The problem, in fact, has been fully worked out…” The article noted that the University of Wisconsin was using hydrochloric acid process to convert wood into sugar, which is then fermented into alcohol (Washington Post, 1916). The same process was also tried on novel sources of cellulose. Scientific American and many other journals of the era reported that in 1918, the Pasteur Institute had been able to produce about 10 gallons of fuel ethanol per ton of seaweed (Scientific American, 1918).
The urgency of the biofuels problem picked up in the 1920s with widespread estimates of a serious pending oil shortage (NYT 1920). One of the most influential chemists of the era, Harold Hibbert of Yale University, said in 1921 that oil shortages posed a serious challenge for public policy and for science. “Does the average citizen understand what this means?” he asked. “In from 10 to 20 years this country will be dependent entirely upon outside sources for a supply of liquid fuels… paying out vast sums yearly in order to obtain supplies of crude oil from Mexico, Russia and Persia.” Chemists might be able to solve the problem, Hibbert said, by making ethanol from abundant cellulose waste – materials such as seaweed, sawdust, corn stalks and wheat straw. “It is believed that the chemist is capable of solving this difficult problem…. (and) it would seem that cellulose in one form or another is capable of filling that role” (Hibbert, 1921). Hibbert helped to form the American Chemical Society’s cellulose division the next year and became its first chair.
As the years went by, the biofuels potential of cellulose — the most abundant organic material on earth — was a recurrent theme in scientific and popular literature. Henry Ford, for instance, told the New York Times in 1925 that the “fuel of the future” would come not from oilfields but rather fields full of weeds (NYT 1925). In 1927 the British Fuel Research Board reported advances in cellulose conversion (NYT 1927). And in 1928, the Washington Post noted that research into cellulose fuels could help with farm relief (Washington Post, 1929).
6.1 Research in the 1930s and 40s
Early attempts to hydrolyze cellulose through the varieties of acid-based processes proved difficult and expensive, but in Germany in the 1930s, Heinrich Scholler developed a process that used weak acid to percolate through wood chips to hydrolyze cellulose and remove wood sugars at the same time. The Scholler process doubled yields, and about 50 parts of sugar were obtained for every 100 parts of wood. (Bente , 1984) Three Scholler plants were built in the 1930s in Germany and one in Switzerland, while a US version of the process was tested and modified by the Madison, Wisconsin Forest Product Laboratories. During World War II, this modified Madison Wood Sugar Process was used to build a plant in Springfield, Oregon, in the US, and in several locations in Russia, to make ethanol for chemicals like synthetic rubber.
One of the best known scientists working in this area at the time was Ernst Berl, a chemical professor at the Technical University at Darmstadt who went to work at Carnegie Mellon University. A Jewish scientist who fled the Nazis, Berl made contributions to cellulose research by examining the pressurizing process for reducing cellulose from all kinds of plant materials to either liquid or solid fuels. This work “assures mankind of an illimitable supply of the prime movers of the wheels of civilization for all time, after natural deposits have been exhausted,” wrote the New York Times science correspondent William L. Laurence (NYT 1940). It was an “astonishing announcement,” said Time magazine; Berl had made fuel from grass, leaves, seaweed, sawdust, scrap lumber, corn, cornstalks and cotton (Time, 1940).
A few years later, at another American Chemical Society meeting, Berl once again caught the world’s attention. Associated Press science writer Howard Blakeslee said that a way had been found to supply the world with “gasoline from plants” (Blakeslee, 1944). Future farmers, Berl said, might have simple installations to make their own fuels to run their tractors and heat their homes. And the New York Times science editor said: “The process means that no nation need import oil or coal if it has land enough to grow carbohydrates” (Kaempffert, 1944).
Meanwhile, as Berl’s research amazed people on the home front, science was also advancing in the forests of southeastern Asia during World War II. It seemed that U.S. and British troops found that their equipment was not standing up to “jungle rot.” Soldiers’ cotton uniforms would disintegrate into rags after only a few weeks in the tropical environment. Researchers were sent across the Pacific collecting strains of fungus to be tested in the labs the US Army’s quartermaster labs in Natick, Massachusetts (Voosen, 2011). Elwyn T. Reese, a chemist with the Army, studied a greenish-yellow mold and was able to isolate a stable variety. While the original idea had been to eliminate the fungus, Reese and others in the lab realized that the enzyme from the fungus was turning cellulose cotton uniforms into glucose, not by the old acid hydrolysis process, but rather through an enzyme hydrolysis process never really considered before (Reese, 1956). The fungus was eventually named Trichoderma reesei in his honor.
Although the research showed that the fungus could be useful for fuels and chemicals from cellulose – in the 1950s, cheap oil from the Middle East made the research moot. Scientists would have to wait another generation before the economics of cellulose biofuels became interesting again.
6.2 Cellulose biofuels after the Arab oil embargo
When the 1974 Arab oil embargo raised the price of oil to the point where cellulosic ethanol was interesting again, Reese’s proteges were among the first wave of scientists to describe petroleum alternatives to Congressional hearings in Washington D.C. Cellulosic biomass could be put into operation “on a very large scale” by 1980 at a cost of 35 cent per gallon, said Natick scientist Leo Spano in a committee hearing in 1974 (Steiger, 1974).
“In the laboratory, filled with test tubes and incubators, I felt apart from the world,” Spano said later. “But it was there that I realized that a tiny enzyme could change the world… the compounds could eat up our poisonous wastes and convert them to useful substances. Just think of all the waste cellulose … sewage, wood pulp, corn cobs … it can all be used to better mankind” (Bernton, 2010). Spano’s optimism notwithstanding, cellulosic biofuels proved to be an enormously complex area of biochemical engineering. Researchers in hundreds of university and government labs have taken decades to create an industry that is nearing commercial status. They have been isolating, characterizing and testing the complex chemical structures of plants, and working on cascading systems of enzyme reactions, and measuring their progress against the roller coaster of oil prices.
One of the scientists intrigued with cellulosic hydrolysis was Patrick Foody, who founded Iogen Corp. in 1974. The company now has a commercial scale enzyme biorefinery in Saskatchewan, Canada. Others research efforts on the enzyme process in the 1970s and 80s took place at Rutgers University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the University of California at Berkeley in USA.
The idea of using fungus to convert cellulose was interesting but not surprising for those who had been paying attention to the progress of biochemistry. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov found it fascinating, and in a 1986 non-fiction article, noted that cellulose hydrolysis was an attractive option for research. “Cellulose is self-renewing if we are carful to conserve our forests,” Asimov said, “so the fuel we get from it could last indefinitely, whereas oil from the ground must be completely used up eventually,” (Asimov, 1986).
The history of biofuels research and policy is extensive enough to fill an encyclopedia, and this chapter has provided only a brief overview of major historical highlights.
The original fuels, biofuels from renewable resources, were pushed into niche markets by low-cost petroleum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet when faced with emergency fuel shortages or agricultural surpluses, most countries opted to protect biofuels markets through tax policies or mandatory blending.
Biofuels have been used in some form over four epochs: 1) as a lamp fuel from pre-history to the mid-19th century; 2) as an internal combustion engine fuel from the early 20th century; 3) as replacement for petroleum during oil shortages of the 1970s; and 4) as a safe octane booster for gasoline substituting for leaded gasoline (tetra ethyl lead) and MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) in the 20th and 21st century.
In recent years, serious questions about the impacts of biofuels on climate change, food rights, biodiversity and sustainability have framed the larger context of energy research and policy debates. These questions are needed to inform the social construction of optimal sustainable energy systems; and they are needed because technologies do not simply emerge from intrinsic properties and launch out on a pre-determined path. Optimal systems development requires vision, and, given the current environmental crises, it is absolutely vital that scientists have a sense of the history and motives of those who worked before them in this area.
Scientists and engineers from all continents — Nicholas Otto, Rudolph Diesel, Henry Ford, Harry Ricardo, Eduardo do Sabino de Oliviera, Kanaiyalal Munshi, among others – have seen biofuels as a path towards reconciliation between rich and poor, urban and rural interests, and industrial and environmental orientations for technology. Ricardo’s idea that biofuels presents a way to live within solar “income” and save fossil fuel “capital” is one that should be better known. Another is Munshi’s thought that food should not be used for fuel in countries like India, but that using cellulosic wastes could be a stabilizing force for agriculture.
The development of sustainable systems is beyond its infancy, but it may still be in its childhood. All too often vested interests manage to put renewable energy into a subordinate position, as “alternatives” or “substitutes.” All too often, concerns that are legitimately part of the social construction process are made to seem like insurmountable obstacles.
And yet, continued research on novel crops, on cellulosic biofuels, on third generation crops, and on other ideas that are only beginning to form, is producing remarkable results. These are all the more remarkable for having been developed under budgetary pressures and the unfortunate undermining of scientific research worldwide.
The pressing complex of global energy, environment and agriculture issues would seem to require the best possible efforts in the biosciences. Even if some governments have shirked these responsibilities, certainly most individual scientists have not. It is a matter of course, as well as pride, to be among those whose vision far exceeds their budget, or even their lifespan. While our toils may now be obscure, scientists who are on the verge of unlocking renewable energy sources today will certainly earn the gratitude of generations to come.
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