American consumers tend to think of ethanol as a recent development. They can be forgiven for this assumption: news reports about climate change are frequently accompanied by stories touting the benefits of renewable resources, clean energy, and biofuels, all of which have been newsworthy due to recent scientific breakthroughs or regulatory developments. Indeed, ethanol appears to be having a moment, as technological innovations mean that it can be produced far more efficiently and cost-effectively than ever before. But there is evidence of uses for ethanol dating back centuries, and its utilization as a fuel source dates at least to the early 1800s. Just as ethanol’s past is far more complex than most realize, its future portends uses that, thanks to technology, are only just coming to fruition.
After World War II, petroleum shortages ended, the price of fossil fuels began to fall, the American economy began one of the longest periods of expansion in history, and the economic viability of ethanol was again on the wane. It remained that way until the mid-1970s, when oil embargoes and attendant fuel shortages sparked renewed interest in ethanol as an alternative to petroleum. In 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had proclaimed the embargo as a geopolitical maneuver in response to perceived Western support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, causing oil prices to skyrocket and leading to shortages, gas lines, and economic upheaval in the form of global recession. Interest in alternative fuels exploded, and demand for ethanol began to increase exponentially. Once the oil crisis ended, however, oil prices fell and remained low throughout the 1980s; only due to U.S. federal and state subsidies for ethanol did it remain in heavy production as a source of fuel.
That all changed after the Clean Air Act of 1990. Scientists had discovered that methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), an oxygenate additive to petroleum, was contaminating groundwater. The Act, and amendments thereto in 1992, contained mandates both to eliminate the use of MTBEs, replacing them with a cleaner and safer octane booster, and to reduce carbon monoxide emissions. The primary substitute for MTBE became ethanol. The result? Ethanol production grew from a range of 500–700 million gallons per year in the 1980s to approximately 3 billion gallons annually in the 1990s — a sixfold increase.
Presently, the “Big Three” American automotive manufacturers sell vehicles with engines that can run on fuels ranging from pure gasoline to 85% ethanol (known as “E85”). These vehicles are known as “flex-fuel vehicles.” The challenge is that there is, at present, limited fueling infrastructure to facilitate E85 sales, as E85 availability is constrained by the need for dedicated storage tanks at filling stations. However, in recent years there have been concerted efforts to increase the number of fueling stations with the necessary infrastructure to support flex-fuel vehicles, including a push by the Obama Administration to set the goal of installing 10,000 blender pumps nationwide by 2015.
The Future of Ethanol
There are traces in the historical record of the distillation of wine to create ethanol dating as early as the ninth century. Modern adaptations of ethanol, however, date to 1826, when a mixture of various chemicals, most notably ethanol, was first used to fuel an internal combustion engine. Before the Civil War, ethanol was commonly used as lamp fuel; that practice was curtailed, however, beginning in 1862, after Congress levied a $2-per-gallon tax on all alcohol to help fund the Civil War, and ethanol became prohibitively expensive for the average family. Production levels did not recover until 1906, when the tax was repealed.
One notable individual, however, did not let ethanol’s cost prevent him from taking advantage of its benefits. In 1896, Henry Ford invented the “Quadricycle,” his first attempt to build an automobile — and it ran on pure ethanol. By 1908, when Ford’s Model T was in production, the vehicle’s engine was designed to run on gasoline, ethanol, or a combination of the two. Ethanol’s future as an automotive fuel was curtailed, however, by Prohibition. Though its uses were predominately as a fuel, ethanol was considered an alcoholic beverage, and its sale was banned unless it was pre-mixed with petroleum.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, ethanol again became prevalent as a source of fuel. Its use was ramped up dramatically during World War II. When petroleum shortages threatened the production of rubber needed for the war effort, farmers in the Midwest devoted their energies to growing corn for ethanol-based synthetic rubber. Eventually, approximately 75% of U.S. rubber was produced directly from ethanol.
ETHANOL PRODUCTION GREW FROM 500-700 MILLION GALLONS PER YEAR IN THE 1980s TO APPROXIMATELY 3 BILLION GALLONS ANNUALLY IN THE 1990s
Fuel for Early Engines and the War Effort
Oil Rationing and Environmental Concerns
Ethanol as Public Policy
The new millennium saw a renewed effort by the U.S. government to elevate and formalize the role of ethanol in a national energy policy that sought both to reduce oil consumption and expand the use of alternative fuel sources, thereby enhancing energy security. In 2005, the first Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was signed into law; the standard mandated ethanol production at the level of 4 billion gallons in 2006, to increase to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Subsequent legislation required renewable fuel usage to increase to 36 billion gallons annually by 2022.
AS OF 2020, MORE THAN 90% OF ALL GASOLINE SOLD IN THE UNITED STATES IS BLENDED WITH ETHANOL
By 2010, the United States was the world’s top ethanol producer, generating well over half the global production of ethanol; alongside Brazil, the two countries accounted for nearly 90% of global production. As of 2020, more than 90% of all gasoline sold in the United States is blended with ethanol.
Ethanol also has one undeniable advantage over traditional fossil fuels: whereas those fuels are finite resources, ethanol is renewable and can be created in several different ways. Moreover, recent technological advances have made production from corn more efficient and are allowing more natural materials to be converted into fuel-grade ethanol.
Ethanol also has potential as an American export. As economic progress lifts tens of millions in developing nations such as India and China into the middle class, they will demand the trappings of middle-class life — including, for many, owning a car for the first time. Insufficient arable land and expanding populations will limit the ability of these countries to develop homegrown ethanol industries, thus creating a market vacuum that American ethanol producers are ideally situated to fill.
Ethanol’s future is bright. With the world ever more focused on combating climate change, ethanol will continue to play an indispensable role in global efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and develop alternative sources of energy. As the world’s leading manufacturer of ethanol, the United States is a critical component of any solution to global warming. Commensurate with that role, the commitment to renewable energy will only grow in importance. For this reason, ethanol has a vital role to play in U.S. climate policy and energy and security infrastructure for decades to come.
Ethanol’s future is bright. With the world ever more focused on combating climate change, ethanol will continue to play aindispensable role in global efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and develop alternative sources of energy. As the world’s leading manufacturer of ethanol, the United States is a critical component of any solution to global warming. Commensurate with that role, the commitment to renewable energy will only grow in importance. For this reason, ethanol has a vital and indispensable role to play in U.S. climate policy and energy and security infrastructure for decades to come.