Henry Ford was indeed a man ahead of his time. Recognized as the grandfather of the American automobile and the great innovator of the automotive assembly line, few people know that Ford was also an outspoken proponent of alcohol-based fuels. But like most visionaries of his time, his foresight was negated by several historical forces that are increasingly relevant today.
In the early 1900s the world’s first automobile makers searched for efficient fuels to propel their new creations. Rudolph Diesel used peanut oil in the engine he debuted at the World’s Fair in Paris, while most early British car makers preferred kerosene. At that time, gasoline was an unpopular waste product that Rockefeller’s lamp oil refineries dumped straight into the Cleveland River.
Henry Ford, the son of a
And for Ford, who had a farm background and was supportive of agriculture, making what would today be known as biofuel had the potential to alleviate a mounting economic crisis for many mid-western farmers (that would intensify in the Great Depression five years later). Although the economics of American agriculture’s misery were indeed complex, one possible solution could have been the creation of a domestic fuel market from homegrown crops. Through Ford's own financial and political assistance, the idea of creating such a market for farm goods would translate into a broad movement for scientific research labeled "Farm Chemurgy", which also studied the economic viability of hemp and soybean plastic.
In the end, gasoline won out over ethanol even though Henry
Ford actually designed the 1908 engine of his famous Model T to burn a mixture
of these two propellants. Three factors led to gasoline’s emergence as the
dominant transportation fuel -- the ease of operation of gas powered engines,
a growing supply of cheaper petroleum from oil field discoveries, and intense lobbying by petroleum companies to maintain steep alcohol taxes.
Remember alcohol had a very bad reputation in the
It wasn’t that gasoline was considered a miracle fuel; it had a bad reputation too. Gasoline had a lower octane rating than ethanol, was far more toxic, and generally more hazardous. Early refineries were dangerous places - gasoline was famous for spontaneous ignition and catastrophic explosions. Gasoline combustion produced more air pollution and was much more physically and chemically complex than ethanol, necessitating intensive refining procedures to ensure a consistent gasoline product.
Two key reasons have pushed petroleum fuels to forefront of automobile transportation. First, cost per mile of travel is virtually the sole selection criteria at the gas pump, and secondly, large investments made by the oil refining industry in physical capital, human skills and technology made the entry of a new cost-competitive fuel difficult in the existing marketplace.
Unfortunately Ford’s vision was lost to political and economic forces he couldn’t control. In fact, throughout American history any legislation proposing a ‘national energy program’ to employ agricultural resources for fuel production has been extinguished by well funded public relations campaigns launched by petroleum interest groups. One noteworthy claim forwarded by petrol companies in 1928 was that the U.S. government planned to fleece taxpayers to make farmers rich.
If you read some of the websites and blogs on ethanol today you’ll hear the same thing. A common misconception is that large agribusinesses control the ethanol industry. Its a fact however, that over half of the ethanol plants in the United States are owned by local farmers working together in cooperatives or limited liability companies.
The largest producer of ethanol in Canada, GreenField Ethanol works closely with farmers in rural Ontario and Quebec to create jobs and new forms of revenue in these communities.
Henry Ford, long regarded as a genius for
mass producing the automobile, also saw the future; ethanol has now arrived at
many gas stations all over
Just like Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T, most vehicles manufactured after 1980 will tolerate up to 10 per cent ethanol, known as E-10, which is the most common blend in Canada. Some newer vehicles however can tolerate E-85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 per cent gasoline. In