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The alcohol tax was repealed in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt, saying, “The Standard Oil Company has, largely by unfair or unlawful methods, crushed out home competition…It is highly desirable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