The History of Ethanol as a Fuel

While many people are more familiar with the history of ethanol in the form of alcoholic drinks, the history of ethanol as fuel is an immensely relevant and compelling topic. While human beings have used the fermented product of various types of organic matter since ancient times, the use of it as a fuel has its origin in the early 19th century. By looking closely at its history, it is possible to achieve a more definite grasp on the implications, benefits and consequences of using ethanol as a fuel.

Ethanol’s use a fuel began with experiments performed by Samuel Morey in 1826. Morey conducted several successful investigations into the use of a mixture of ethanol, turpentine and ambient air as fuel for internal combustion. However, his experiments did not gain much attention because of the wide availability and acceptance of steam engines. Ethanol began to receive more attention in the mid-19th century following Nicholas Otto’s invention of the internal combustion engine.

Even greater interest in using Ethanol as fuel emerged at the turn of the 20th century. In 1896, Henry Ford invented his first vehicle, which was known as the Quadricycle and was designed to operate entirely on ethanol as a fuel source. His 1908 Model T had the capability to run on ethanol, gasoline or a combination of those fuels. However, despite Ford’s advocacy for ethanol as the predominant fuel source, lower prices of gasoline during the era of prohibition allowed gasoline to become the dominant fuel for the emergent personal vehicle market.

Interest in ethanol as a fuel for internal combustion engines reemerged during the 1970s. High oil prices, an interest in reducing dependence on foreign oil and a push for renewable energy sources converged to make ethanol and ethanol blend fuels attractive to the U.S. market. The most used blend of gasoline during this period was E10, which contains 10 percent ethanol.

A second surge in interest occurred at the start of the 21st century. As oil prices continued to rise and legislation set out to ban methyl tertiary butyl ether, a common gasoline additive, corn-based ethanol’s presence in the marketplace grew. Other legislation, such as the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which demanded the use of 7,500,000,000 gallons of renewable fuel by 2012, and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which raised the annual renewable fuel use to 36,000,000,000 by 2022.

In 2010, the United States was solidly the world’s largest producer of ethanol, manufacturing 13.2 billion gallons. For that year, it represented 57.5 percent of the total production of ethanol worldwide. The second largest producer of ethanol that year was Brazil, which produced 6.92 billion gallons. By the end of 2010, more than 90 percent of all U.S. gasoline was sold in the form of an ethanol blend.

The history of ethanol as an energy source has been deeply impacted by factors such as technological innovation, fluctuating oil prices, changes in global energy markets and interest in renewable fuels. By considering these factors, it is easier to understand the issues surrounding the use of ethanol as a fuel.


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