Back when ethanol didn't get a fair shake

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Take a long drive, like many of us did over the Thanksgiving holiday, and it's becoming more and more common to come upon a new ethanol plant springing up out of the plains.

There's one in full production near Trenton, another near Sutherland, and others under construction near McCook, Cambridge, Madrid and Wallace.

Not since Prohibition has locally-brewed ethanol been in such abundance. It's a shame it took the OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s and the current Mideast conflicts to make us take another serious look at brewing our own fuel right here on the Golden Plains.

Actually, not many of us realized that this isn't the first time alcohol has been tapped as a motor vehicle fuel. In fact, the last time it was a serious contender was back during Prohibition.

Alcohol was touted as an anti-knock octane booster as early as the 1920s, sold as Vegaline out of Washington state, Alcogas in New England, and Agrol, with as little as 5 percent and as much as 17 percent alcohol, was sold from Indiana to South Dakota in the 1930s.

But competing against alcohol was tetraethyl lead, manufactured by the Ethyl Corp., which, by the way, was owned by Standard Oil, DuPont and General Motors.

Lead was an effective and slightly cheaper way to end engine knock, but was also deadly, killing refinery workers in an industrial accident in 1924.

But the Public Health Service, then part of the Treasury Department, headed by Andrew W. Mellon, one of the owners of the Gulf Oil Co., found that there were "no good grounds" to ban lead from gasoline.

As a result, ethanol nearly disappeared from gasoline by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.

But the war put ethanol back in demand as a fuel extender for airplanes and submarines, as well as the raw material for synthetic rubber. As a result, one ethanol plant in Kansas was put back into production and another built in Omaha to meet the demand.

Today, ethanol is added to only about 30 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States. But, by 2012 when new federal requirements kick in, the use of ethanol will double, with up to 85 percent of the nation's gasoline carrying ethanol.

And, General Motors is promoting ethanol, building "flexible fuel" vehicles that burn up to 85 percent of ethanol and helping install E-85 fuel pumps.

Back in the 1930s, lead won out over alcohol, and we've been paying the price ever since.

We can only wonder how different our world would have been if alcohol had been given a fair chance back then.

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