Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: Ethanol on the March

The Secret History of Lead: A Special Report from The Nation

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Ethanol on the March

In October 1921, less than two months before he hatched leaded gasoline, Thomas Midgley drove a high-compression-engined car from Dayton to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis, using a gasoline-ethanol blended fuel containing 30 percent alcohol. “Alcohol,” he told the assembled engineers, “has tremendous advantages and minor disadvantages.” The benefits included “clean burning and freedom from any carbon deposit…[and] tremendously high compression under which alcohol will operate without knocking…. Because of the possible high compression, the available horsepower is much greater with alcohol than with gasoline.”

After four years’ study, GM researchers had proved it: Ethanol was the additive of choice. Their estimation would be confirmed by others. In the thirties, after leaded gasoline was introduced to the United States but before it dominated in Europe, two successful English brands of gas—Cleveland Discoll and Kool Motor—contained 30 percent and 16 percent alcohol, respectively. As it happened, Cleveland Discoll was part-owned by Ethyl’s half-owner, Standard Oil of New Jersey (Kool Motor was owned by the US oil company Cities Service, today Citgo). While their US colleagues were slandering alcohol fuels before Congressional committees in the thirties, Standard Oil’s men in England would claim, in advertising pamphlets, that ethanol-laced, lead-free petrol offered “the most perfect motor fuel the world has ever known,” providing “extra power, extra economy, and extra efficiency.”

For a change, the oil companies spoke the truth. Today, in the postlead era, ethanol is routinely blended into gasoline to raise octane and as an emissions-reducing oxygenate. Race cars often run on pure ethanol. DaimlerChrysler and Ford earn credits allowing them to sell additional gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles by engineering so-called flex-vehicles that will run on clean-burning E85, an 85 percent ethanol/gasoline blend. GM helped underwrite the 1999 Ethanol Vehicle Challenge, which saw college engineering students easily converting standard GM pickup trucks to run on E85, producing hundreds of bonus horsepower. Ethanol’s technical difficulties have been surmounted and its cost—as an octane-boosting additive rather than a pure fuel—is competitive with the industry’s preferred octane-boosting oxygenate, MTBE, a petroleum-derived suspected carcinogen with an affinity for groundwater that was recently outlawed in California. With MTBE’s fall from grace, many refiners—including Getty, which took out a full-page ad in the New York Times congratulating itself for doing so—returned to ethanol long after it was first developed as a clean-burning octane booster.

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