Biofuel- Ethanol History

Consensus definition: A renewable energy source, biofuels are gas or liquid fuels made from plant or other biological material (biomass).



for CABI.ORG / May, 2013 By Bill Kovarik

1 Introduction- Biofuels were humanity’s first liquid fuels. They include… Learn more

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)….Learn more.

2.1 German Biofuels Programs 1890 – 1916-  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,…Learn more.

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…Learn more

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…Learn more

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… Learn more

3 Biofuels for Internal Combustion Engines- …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…Learn more

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…Learn more

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…Learn more

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…Learn more

4.1 Brazil And Philippines Develop New Markets For Sugar Cane 1900s – 1930s- …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…Learn more

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….Learn more

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….Learn more 

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…Learn more

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….Learn more

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…Learn more 

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….Learn more

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…Learn more

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)….Learn more

7 Conclusion- 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….Learn more


Interactive Ethanol Timeline