ETHANOL'S FASCINATING HISTORY
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The young farmer looked across the dinner table at his grandfather and said, "Grandpa, I'll bet you wish you had ethanol when you started farming. Just look what it has done for our corn market."
"Who said we didn't have it?" replied Grandpa with a smile. "We didn't call it ethanol, and we couldn't develop it to its potential, but it was part of the chemurgy movement."
Score one for Grandpa; his grandson looked puzzled.
Chemurgy was a term coined by chemist William J. Hale to mean the production of industrial products from agricultural raw materials. The word was more common during the 1930s and '40s.
In 1933, the American Farm Bureau Federation and its Illinois affiliate, the Illinois Agricultural Association, now Illinois Farm Bureau, touted the benefits of Hi-Ball Gasoline, a 90-percent gasoline, 10-percent grain alcohol fuel.
The Illinois Farm Supply Company distributed the new fuel and the results were impressive. After 54,000 gallons had been sold in Illinois for use in autos, tractors, trucks and buses, the conclusion was that "alcohol from motor fuel is not only practicable in actual use, but it is superior to motor fuel now available."
Experiments were going on in other states too, and similar blends of alcohol and gasoline were sold under a variety of names.
In the same year, 1933, the Agriculture Department made what may have been its first official endorsement of what would become ethanol. In response to a request by Congress, the department said the manufacture of alcohol from farm products would aid in taking care of farm surpluses and stabilizing markets.
At the time, corn was selling for 50 cents a bushel, and gasoline was 13 cents a gallon. The price of corn is about seven times greater today, and gasoline is 25 times more expensive at the pump.
Farm Bureau wholeheartedly endorsed the use of farm commodities and agricultural wastes in making alcohol and other industrial products. The interest had nothing to do with imported oil, high gasoline prices, air pollution or the fact that we might someday run out of oil and need a renewable fuel. It was strictly another market for farmers and a little better engine performance for consumers.
During World War II, the Allied forces were cut off from most of the world's natural rubber supply. Synthetic rubber required butadiene, a chemical base, which could be made from either alcohol or petroleum. Alcohol was the choice, but after the war the government decided to shut down its alcohol plants. AFBF President Ed O'Neal protested the decision to the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion and said farmers would need the alcohol plants if grain surpluses built up. But the cards were stacked against him. Petroleum interests stepped in, and the excuse was made that grain could be better used for livestock feed for which a temporary shortage existed.
Had the U.S. government backed farm-based alcohol as an alternative energy source in 1945, it might have changed world history, and grain surpluses might never have become a problem. In reality it just wasn't ethanol's time.
Stewart Truelsen, a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series, is a former member of the American Farm Bureau public relations staff.