“The tremendous surplus of all grain crops in the United States, coupled with the certainty that in the future they will have more rather than less difficulty finding export markets, has turned attention in that country to the possibilities of finding an outlet for grain in the manufacture of industrial or fuel alcohol. Following instructions from the Senate, the department of agriculture has made a thorough study of the possibilities, reporting the project as feasible, with important reservations.”
While the price of oil has jumped significantly in recent weeks — above $75 a barrel because of war in the Middle East and the Alaskan pipeline shut down — the above statement has nothing to do with a possible solution to the present fuel crisis in the U.S.
The call for conversion of grain into fuel alcohol (ethanol) in the first paragraph is actually from years ago and was reported by P.M. Abel in The Country Guide, published in Winnipeg in June 1933.
“The use of mixtures containing alcohol for internal combustion engines is nothing new,” he said.
Although that may have been the case 73 years ago, the call today for greater use of ethanol implies that it’s a relatively new idea as frequently reported by the media.
In 2003, the Manitoba government passed the Biofuels Act, which mandates a mix of 10 per cent ethanol with gasoline to produce “gasohol” at 85 per cent of the pumps by mid-2007. The target date is expected to be realized when the new Husky Oil ethanol plant in Minnedosa, Manitoba, has enough capacity to meet demand. The ethanol plant, built in 1981 and now owned by Husky, only produces 10 million litres annually, but the $145-million replacement plant — $10.4 million from Ottawa’s Ethanol Expansion program — will churn out 130-million litres annually.
In 2005, the federal government announced a target of 500-million litres of ethanol by 2010.
The U.S. presently produces roughly 300-million litres of ethanol each year (it wants to implement a five-per-cent ethanol and 95-per-cent gas mixture by 2010), while the European Union produces 10 times more.
Actually, Europe has long been a producer of ethanol that is mixed with gasoline. The 1933 Country Guide article said that Germany was making fuel from potatoes, producing 77-million gallons (imperial measurement equals 35,004,200 litres) annually. Called Monopolin, the fuel had a mix of 45 per cent alcohol (ethanol), 45 per cent gas and 10 per cent benzol.
Today, Germany is the one of largest producers and consumers of biodeisel fuel with 19 plants providing nearly one-billion litres a year. Brazil is another major producer and consumer.
Some of the other countries mentioned in the article were Cuba which used molasses to produce biofuel and Hawaii (then a territory, not a state, of the U.S.) which used pineapple waste.
Even in 1933, the environmental advantages of biofuels were recognized. “Alcohol, added to gasoline, gives it an anti-knock property; improves combustion, thus tending to prevent carbon formation; and in general makes for a smoother engine performance,” said Abel.
The Manitoba department of Agriculture said that “gasohol” increases the oxygen content of the fuel mix, resulting in more complete combustion and an estimated 25 to 30 per cent reduction in carbon monoxide. “More complete combustion of fuel also results in a reduction in tailpipe emissions of unburned hydrocarbons.
Abel said the U.S. government had reported that increasing the blend of ethanol in gasoline to 10 per cent would result in a 2 3/4-cent per gallon (US measurement 3.785 litres per gallon) increase in the price of fuel. This was at a time when the U.S. was a net exporter of gasoline, not a net importer as today, and domestic gasoline sold for a mere pittance (18 cents per US gallon: American Petroleum Industry).
“The Canadian Research Council has not given this question the same study as the American department of agriculture, but it repeats the opinions of several manufacturing chemists that it will be necessary to get costs below those quoted if alcohol is to compete with gasoline at prevailing prices,” according to Abel.
He went on to say that an ethanol blend could be attractive if the gas tax was decreased or eliminated. “The gas tax is now so stiff in all provinces that this might be made a most powerful incentive.” (Sounds familiar.)
At present, a litre of ethanol is roughly five times more costly to produce than a gallon of gas, which explains the need for a blend to keep costs down. Also, existing cars can only use a 10 per cent blend of ethanol with gasoline without needing a costly engine overhaul. Cars dedicated to burn a higher blend are also more costly than those burning regular gasoline.
And unlike the U.S., Canada is a net exporter of oil and has enough for its own domestic needs. With such a glut of oil, Canadian governments are forced to subsidize ethanol production so that it can compete with gasoline.
“Private capital is not likely to undertake the heavy outlay involved (in expanding ethanol production) unless the future of the industry were to be insured by government guarantee,” said Abel in 1933.
“If undertaken it may be in the interest of both the farmer and the fuel consumer to adopt it as a long term program. The fact that there is now a surplus of gasoline must not lead to the belief that the oil resources of the world are inexhaustible. Undoubtedly the cost of processing grain alcohol will be reduced, offsetting the equal probability that other synthetic fuel processes will be perfected, and existing ones improved,” ended Abel.
What’s amazing is that the same problems the world now faces have been discussed decades ago, but the very fact that solutions have been offered in the past is often forgotten with the passage of time. We are always under the mistaken belief that we’re involved in some new concept when someone has already gone down the same path. History has much to teach us.