Charles Kettering was the head of research at General Motors, but little is known about his interest in ethyl alcohol fuel and how it fit into G.M.’s long term strategy. General Motors (and Kettering) had come to considerable grief that summer of 1925 over another octane boosting fuel called tetraethyl lead, and government officials had been quietly in touch with Ford engineers about alternatives to leaded gasoline additives.
Ford was the champion of the farmer, and made his model t engine run on a variety of fuels, not just gasoline from refineries, but from simple fuels that a Model T owner might find when driving around the world, like grain/corn/wood alcohol, camphene, mineral spirits, and kerosene (which was plentiful in that age of oil lamps being more common than lightbulbs). Most importantly to Ford, in 1925 the American farms that Ford loved (recall his soybean car attempt) were facing an economic crisis that would later intensify with the depression.
When Henry Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethyl alcohol was “the fuel of the future” in 1925, he was expressing an opinion that was widely shared in the automotive industry. “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, awdust — almost anything,” he said. “There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”
By the mid-1920s ethyl alcohol was routinely blended with gasoline in every industrialized nation except the United States. Ten to twenty five percent alcohol blends with gasoline were common in Scandinavian countries, where alcohol was made from paper mill wastes; in France, Germany and throughout continental Europe, where alcohol was made from surplus grapes, potatoes and other crops; and in Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippians, South Africa, and other tropical regions, where it was made from sugar cane and molasses.
Most people are not familiar with the other fuel blends using alcohol. “Gasonol” (with an “n”) was a blend of 20 percent sugar cane alcohol with gasoline and kerosene used in the Philippeans in the 1930s. Koolmotor, Benzalcool, Moltaco, Lattybentyl, Natelite, Alcool and Agrol are some of the other obscure but interesting blends of fuels once found in Britain, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, South Africa, Brazil and the U.S. (respectively) in the 1920s and 1930s.
Kettering’s interest is particularly important because he was enthusiastic about alcohol fuel even after the discovery of tetraethyl lead. In fact, Kettering originally planned that the octane boosting power of leaded gasoline would pave the way for the fuel of the future — ethyl alcohol from cellulosic biomass. But then, GM invested in lead gas companies Ethyl Gasoline Corp, Standard Oil of New Jersey and with royalties to be made, it turned to "scientific" studies to prove leaded gas was superior. Coincidentally, only studies from oil production countries agreed, and studies from alcohol production countries proved contrary.
" in the 1930s, oil industry opponents of alcohol blends in the US claimed that technical problems prohibited their use. “Alcohol is much inferior, gallon for gallon, to gasoline as a motor fuel,” claimed the American Petroleum Industries Committee. While admitting there was some anti-knock advantage, the committee said the blends would be “unstable in the presence of small amounts of accidental moisture.”
Around 1920 and 1921, Kettering came to believe that alcohol fuel from renewable resources would be the answer to the compression problem and the possibility of an oil shortage. Along with his British counterpart, H.R. Ricardo, Kettering settled on alcohol as the key to unshackling the internal combustion engine from non-renewable fossil fuels,” said historian Stuart Leslie. “Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) never knocked, it could be produced by distiling waste vegetable material, and it was almost pollution-free.
In 1920 and 1921 Kettering, Boyd and Midgley were preoccupied with the long-term replacement of petroleum, and were not technically or politically opposed to ethyl alcohol as a straight fuel or in blends with gasoline. Kettering spoke out against taxes on alcohol as an impediment to fuel research and helped overcome other obstacles.
Clearly, G.M. switched gears sometime in 1923 or 1924.
In 1924 G.M. allied itself with Standard Oil, creating the Ethyl Corp. Shortly afterwards, G.M. researchers contradicted years of their own research and hundreds of other studies by claiming that only tetra ethyl lead could produce anti-knock results.
When controversy broke out about the public health impacts of leaded gasoline in 1924, Midgley and Kettering told the media, fellow scientists and the government that no alternatives existed. “So far as science knows at the present time,” Midgley told a meeting of scientists, “tetraethyl lead is the only material available which can bring about these [antiknock] results, which are of vital importance to the continued economic use by the general public of all automotive equipment, and unless a grave and inescapable hazard exists in the manufacture of tetraethyl lead, its abandonment cannot be justified.”
The onset of interest in alcohol fuel in 1933 caught the oil industry off guard, but once alarmed, it reacted swiftly. The American Petroleum Institute urged formation of state level “emergency committees” in the spring of 1933 to oppose proposals for tax incentives.
The memo explained the threat: compulsory blend of alcohol and gasoline, as was used in France, Italy and Germany in the 1920s and early 30s, “will harm the petroleum industry and the automobile industry as well as state and national treasuries by reducing [oil] consumption,”
By the mid-1930s, the alliance between General Motors, DuPont Corp. and Standard Oil to produce Ethyl leaded gasoline succeeded beyond all expectations: 90 percent of all gasoline contained lead. Public health crusaders who found this troubling still spoke out in political forums, but competitors were not allowed to criticize leaded gasoline in the commercial marketplace. In a restraining order forbidding such criticism, the Federal Trade Commission said Ethyl gasoline “is entirely safe to the health of [motorists] and to the public in general when used as a motor fuel, and is not a narcotic in its effect, a poisonous dope, or dangerous to the life or health of a customer, purchaser, user or the general public.”
Technical experts in the oil industry claimed that alcohol fuel blends “are definitely inferior to gasoline alone from every angle of motor performance.” Editorials by Lowell Thomas (very famous guy in the 30s) and other radio announcers paid for by oil industry sponsors claimed that alcohol fuel would make “speakeasys” out of gasoline stations because bootleggers could easily separate out the gasoline and sell the alcohol.
Automotive History Review, Bill Kovarik, Spring 1998, No. 32, p. 7 – 27.
Cited in Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace (NY: Penguin, 2012); ]
Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature (U.Washington Press, 2012);
C. Boyden Gray and Andrew R. Varcoe’s “Octane, Clean Air and Renewable Fuels” (pdf),
(Energy Future Coalition, 2006); and others.
Photo above from 1933, Lincoln, Nebraska courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society with thanks to John Carter.