A Brief History of Biofuels


Everything we burn or have ever burned for fuel originated as a living thing. It either started out as a plant, gathering energy from the sun and pulling carbon dioxide out of the air to store that energy, or else it was an animal that ate that plant (or ate the animal that ate that plant). In one sense, all fuel is biofuel, however, we generally reserve the “biofuel” designation for material that was recently living – to distinguish it from fossil fuel.

Biofuel has been the “fuel of the future” in this country for at least a hundred years now. Its promise as a clean, renewable, domestically available fuel has long been recognized. Back in 1917, Alexander Graham Bell made the following observation in National Geographic, “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 cop of alcohol to any extent desired.”

But despite its promise, alcohol as a fuel has had its challenges.  Throughout its history, biofuel producers have fought a mostly losing battle with petroleum-based fossil fuels, vying for subsidies and preferential tax treatment. Because of its larger political and economic clout, the fossil fuel industry has generally held the upper hand, though that could be starting to change.

It wasn’t always that way. Going back to the 1820s, a blend of camphene and alcohol was the dominant fuel for lamps, as much as 100 million gallons a year were sold, almost ten times the volume of the more expensive whale oil. Many farmers had their own stills that they used to make lamp oil (and other things) from crop wastes. That all came to an abrupt end in 1862, when a $2 per gallon tax was assessed on alcohol to help finance the Civil War. But somehow, kerosene, or coal oil, as it was called then, was taxed at only ten cents a gallon. By 1870, kerosene was selling over 200 million gallons a year.

The alcohol tax was repealed in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt, saying, “The Standard Oil Company has, largely by unfair or unlawful methods, crushed out home competition…It is highly desirable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…upon the [tax] free list.”

This back and forth trend would continue over the next century.

Biofuel’s roots run deep into the earliest automotive days. The first internal combustion engine in the U.S. was built by Samuel Morey who used it to power a small boat up the Connecticut River in 1826. He fueled it with a mixture of turpentine and alcohol.

German inventor Nicolaus August Otto is generally credited with inventing the first automobile engine. The four-stroke internal combustion engine he developed in 1876 used alcohol, which was plentiful and untaxed in Europe, as the fuel. Rudolph Diesel demonstrated his first engine in 1900 running on peanut oil. The Ford Model T, which first came out in 1908, was also designed to run on ethanol.

But somehow the “unseen hand” gave  gasoline prominence. By 1920, there were 9 million gasoline-powered vehicles on the road.

Biofuels tried to make a comeback in the 1930s in the form of gasoline blends. Agrol, of Atchison, Kansas (now Midwest Grain Products) was backed by Ford but opposed by the oil companies. At one point there were 2,000 stations across the Midwest, but the company went bankrupt in 1939. During the war, ethanol was primarily used to make 75 percent of all synthetic rubber, which was in high demand. Ethanol was also used as an aviation fuel.

After the war, gasoline became so cheap that ethanol disappeared from the market altogether, until the oil embargoes of the 1970s. With the gas shortages and long lines at the pumps, interest in alternative fuels was rekindled. Professor Thomas B. Reed of MIT was an outspoken advocate for the development of new fuels, but his research was canceled under pressure from Exxon, a major contributor to the school. Nonetheless, “gasohol,” a blend of gasoline and alcohol become widely available during that decade, encouraged by a tax credit of 58 cents a gallon.

Once gasoline prices fell, interest in ethanol once again waned, and the tax credit was reduced, in 2005, to 47 cents a gallon.

More recently, concerns about dependence on foreign oil, as well as awareness of climate change have worked their way onto public and government agendas, resulting in a number of actions that have opened the doors for a resurgence of biofuels.

In 1992, the Energy Policy Act required car makers to offer models capable of using alternative fuels. In 2006, the Renewable Fuels Standards (RFS) Program encouraged the use of ethanol and biodiesel with the goal of doubling their use by 2012. In 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) required the incorporation of 15 billion gallons of ethanol into the fuel supply by 2015 and 36 billion gallons by 2022. EISA also puts a cap on the amount of corn that can be allocated for fuel at 15 billion gallons so as not to overly interfere with the food supply. Much of the rest is expected to come from cellulosic ethanol, which has been slow coming on line with the remainder coming from biodiesel and other unspecified advanced biofuels that might include algae or other organisms.

While the future of our energy supply is altogether uncertain, it seems clear that biofuels will play a key role. Overall, biofuels contribute over 20 percent of all renewable energy consumed in this country. Other than hydro-electric power (35 percent), it is the largest single contributor, about the same as wood, and slightly more than wind. We will further explore the role of biofuels in the emerging energy picture as well as a number of issues regarding its production and use in the forthcoming series.

[Image credit: Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections]

Thanks to Bill Kovarik.

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel about sustainability. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. He is also active in his community of Rochester, NY. A regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine, RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner to the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com