The Ethanol Papers - Paperturn manuscript - Flipbook - Page 37
speed engines could safely use gasoline. Early on, as speeds were measured
against human walking or horse riding, this was acceptable. But as roads were
leveled and paved and consumers wanted bigger faster vehicles this was a
huge limitation. One of the solutions to gasoline knock was to blend ethanol into
every gallon of gasoline. The alcohol quieted the knock, thereby allowing the
gasoline-ethanol blend to be used in better performing engines.
Unfortunately, alcohol suffered from two major impediments to universal acceptance as a pure engine fuel. The first was cost. Alcohol production has been
heavily taxed since the founding of the United States, initially to raise revenues
to pay for the War of Independence. As usually happens with taxes imposed to
pay for one specific thing, it is nearly impossible to retire the tax even after the
initial purpose has been fulfilled. The extra dollars are just too attractive to politicians who need to fund pork-barrel projects to insure re-election, and there
was always another war that had to be paid for. (Prior to Congress passing a
national individual income tax 100 years ago, tax on alcohol routinely accounted
for as much as 40% of the Federal revenue.)
The Federal tax on alcohol reached new heights during the American Civil War,
rising to over $2 per gallon. Needless to say, this was a devastatingly high tax.
Average weekly wages in the 1860s were about $12 – considered in respect to
today’s average wages that would be like a tax of $129 per gallon (in actuality,
the current Federal tax on spirits – drinkable alcohol - is $13.50 per gallon).
Kerosene was also taxed to help pay war costs: A paltry 10 cents per gallon!
The alcohol tax was not retired until Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency about 40
years later when the Free Alcohol Act brought the price of corn ethanol down
to 14 cents per gallon and molasses ethanol to 9.5 cents per gallon (versus
gasoline at 22 cents per gallon).
Now you’ll recall that I said that there were two impediments to universal acceptance of alcohol as a universal engine fuel. The second problem was, ironically, alcohol’s easy production and ubiquitous availability; it is too simple and
easy to make.
By the middle of the 1800s, as the world’s whale population was drastically
declining due to over-hunting, and the price of whale oil was sky rocketing, an
alcohol-turpentine blend was used as a less expensive replacement for indoor
lighting and heating. But with the development of kerosene in the 1850s, followed by the imposition of the much higher alcohol tax in 1862, a new use was