"There's enough alcohol in one year's yeild of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years." - Henry Ford
Pioneering automotive engineer Henry Ford held many patents on automotive
mechanisms, but is best remembered for helping devise the factory assembly
approach to production that revolutionized the auto industry by greatly reducing
the time required to assemble a car.
Born in Wayne County, Michigan, Ford showed an early interest in mechanics,
constructing his first steam engine at the age of 15. In 1893 he built his first
internal combustion engine, a small one-cylinder gasoline model, and in 1896 he
built his first automobile.
In June 1903 Ford helped establish Ford Motor Company. He served as president of
the company from 1906 to 1919 and from 1943 to 1945.
In addition to earning numerous patents on auto mechanisms, Ford served as a vice
president of the Society of Automotive Engineers when it was founded in 1905 to
standardize U.S. automotive parts. 1
Shamefully, Ford was an anti-Semitic and Nazi sympathizer. Comparable to Thomas Jefferson having slaves; it is paradoxical that Henry Ford (considered to be one of America's greatest minds) should also be preoccupied with racism.
Fuel of the Future
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, sawdust -- 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."
Ford recognized the utility of the hemp plant. He constructed a car of resin
stiffened hemp fiber, and even ran the car on ethanol made from hemp. Ford knew
that hemp could produce vast economic resources if widely cultivated.
Ford's optimistic appraisal of cellulose and crop based ethyl alcohol fuel can be
read in several ways. First, it can be seen as an oblique jab at a competitor.
General Motors had come to considerable grief that summer of 1925 over another
octane boosting fuel called tetra-ethyl lead, and government officials had been
quietly in touch with Ford engineers about alternatives to leaded gasoline
additives. Secondly, by 1925 the American farms that Ford loved were facing an
economic crisis that would later intensify with the depression. Although the
causes of the crisis were complex, one possible solution was seen in creating new
markets for farm products. With Ford's financial and political backing, the idea
of opening up industrial markets for farmers would be translated into a broad
movement for scientific research in agriculture that would be labelled "Farm
Why Henry's plans were delayed for more than a half century:
Ethanol has been known as a fuel for many decades. Indeed, when Henry Ford
designed the Model T, it was his expectation that ethanol, made from renewable
biological materials, would be a major automobile fuel. However, gasoline emerged
as the dominant transportation fuel in the early twentieth century because of
the ease of operation of gasoline engines with the materials then available for
engine construction, a growing supply of cheaper petroleum from oil field
discoveries, and intense lobbying by petroleum companies for the federal
government to maintain steep alcohol taxes. Many bills proposing a National
energy program that made use of Americas vast agricultural resources (for fuel
production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests.
One noteworthy claim put forth by petrol companies was that the U.S. government's plans
"robbed taxpayers to make farmers rich".
Gasoline had many disadvantages as an automotive resource. The "new" fuel had a
lower octane rating than ethanol, was much more toxic (particularly when blended
with tetra-ethyl lead and other compounds to enhance octane), generally more
dangerous, and contained threatening air pollutants. Petroleum was more likely to
explode and burn accidentally, gum would form on storage surfaces and carbon
deposits would form in combustion chambers of engines. Pipelines were needed for
distribution from "area found" to "area needed". Petroleum was much more
physically and chemically diverse than ethanol, necessitating complex refining
procedures to ensure the manufacture of a consistent "gasoline" product.
However, despite these environmental flaws, fuels made from petroleum have
dominated automobile transportation for the past three-quarters of a century.
There are two key reasons: First, cost per kilometer of travel has been virtually
the sole selection criteria. Second, the large investments made by the oil and
auto industries in physical capital, human skills and technology make the entry
of a new cost-competitive industry difficult.
Until very recently, environmental concerns have been largely ignored. All of
that is finally changing as consumers demand fuels such as ethanol, which are
much better for the environment and human health.3