Ethanol History


How to make ethanol
Corn Ethanol History
Brazil Corn History
Ethanol Car History
E85 Ethanol History
Ethanol and animal feed

Useful Ethanol Links:

Ethanol History in America
American Ethanol Coalition
Ethanol: Myths and Realities
World fuel ethanol
Biology Glossary
Algae oil

Other useful links:
Alcohol Quotes

Ethanol History - From Alcohol to Car Fuel

Today, we use ethanol for a wide range of purposes, from producing medicine and synthesizing chemical products to fueling our heaters, lamps and vehicles. Some of the oldest internal combustion engines actually ran on ethanol, something which makes ethanol history closely intertwined with car history. Today, ethanol cars are more popular than ever before. But the history of the intricate relationship between ethanol and man goes much further back than the history of our modern, car filled society.

The fermentation of sugar into ethanol is one of the earliest organic reactions that man learned to carry out and the history of man-made ethanol is very long. Ethanol is a powerful psychoactive substance and ethanol history is filled with accounts detailing its use as a recreational drug. Dried ethanol residue have been found on 9 000 year old pottery in China which indicates that Neolithic people in this part of the world may have consumed alcoholic beverages1.

Beer and wine will normally not develop a alcohol content over roughly 15% alcohol by volume, since a higher concentration makes it impossible for most yeasts to reproduce.2 Eventually, humans found out that a higher ethanol concentration could be obtained through distillation. Distillation is a process where a mixture is separated into various components based on their individual volatility. Fermented solutions have been distilled since ancient times in order to produce distilled beverages with a high ethanol content.

Distillation was well known by the early Greeks and Arabs. Greek alchemists working in Alexandria during the first century A.D. carried out distillation3, and the medieval Arabs learned from the Alexandrians4.

In cold parts of Central Asia, freeze destillation was discovered and the earliest evidence of it being used dates back to the early Middle Ages. We also know that acohol was destilled in Schola Medica Salernitana in southern Italy during the 12th century5, and that fractional distillation was invented by Tadeo Alderotti in the 13th century6.

The year 1796 is significant for ethanol history because this is when Johann Tobias Lowitz obtained pure ethanol by filtering distilled ethanol through activated charcoal.7 Antoine Lavoisier was able to ascertain that ethanol consists of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, but it wasn't until the early 19th century that the chemical formula was determined by Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure.8 During the mid 1800s, ethanol became one of the first structural formulas to be determined – another vital step in the history of ethanol. The scientist behind the description was Scottish chemist Archibald Scott Couper.9

How to make ethanol

Ethanol can be produced in two different ways: through fermentation and through ethylene hydration. Fermentation is a biological process, while ethylene hydration is a petrochemical one.

How to make ethanol using fermentation

Fermentation is the oldest way for humans to produce ethanol, and this is the traditional way of making alcoholic beverages. It is also the process used for the vast majority of ethanol fuels on the market.

When certain species of yeast metabolize sugar, the end result is ethanol and carbon dioxide. One example of such a species is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which has been used by brewers since ancient times. Even the name points to this time-honoured practise. Saccharo is a Greek reference to sugar, myces means fungus in the same language and cerevisiae translates into “of beer” in Latin.

This is the chemical formula for turning sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide:

C6H12O6 → 2 CH3CH2OH + 2 CO2
C6H12O6 is simple sugar, also known as dextrose or D-glucose.
CH3CH2OH is ethanol.

CO2 is carbon dioxide.

As you can see from the formula, one sugar molecule is turned into two ethanol molecules and two carbon dioxide molecules. This is how to make ethanol through fermentation.

Most types of yeast will stop reproducing when the alcohol content reaches 15% ethanol by volume, or even earlier, putting a natural limit on the alcohol concentration achieved through fermentation.10

How to make ethanol through ethylene hydration

Ethanol produced through ethylene hydration is commonly referred to as synthetic ethanol, since it isn't the result of a biological process. Synthetic ethanol is chiefly used as a solvent and as an industrial feedstock. Acid is normally used as a catalyst for the process.

C2H4(g) + H2O(g) → CH3CH2OH(l)
C2H4 is ethylene.

H2O is water.

CH3CH2OH is ethanol.
Earlier, a two step process was utilized. First, ethylene was allowed to react with concentrated sulfuric acid to form ethyl sulfate. The ethyl sulfate was then hydrolyzed to produce ethanol and sulfuric acid.

Step one: C2H4 + H2SO4 → CH3CH2SO4H

Step two: CH3CH2SO4H + H2O → CH3CH2OH + H2SO4

H2SO4 is sulfuric acid.

CH3CH2SO4H is ethyl sulfate.

Corn Ethanol history

Corn ethanol history is largely the history of corn ethanol in the United States. The United States is the largest producer of corn world-wide (roughly 40% of the world's harvest in 2009)11 and the nation is also, since 2005, the world's leading producer of ethanol fuel12. Most of the ethanol fuel produced in the U.S. is derived from corn (maize).13

A majority of the gas stations that offer fuel such as E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) are to be found in the Midwest “corn-belt” of the nation. Outside this region, it can be difficult to find E85 or other types of corn ethanol fuel for cars.14

Corn ethanol history in the U.S. is the history of subsidies, since the sector didn't really take off until the government decided to subsidize it. The Energy Tax Act of 1978 created ethanol tax credits in an effort to decrease the nation's vulnerability to oil shortages and handle how the price of corn had been depressed by agricultural subsidies. In 1980, the government – in an effort to secure that U.S. produced ethanol would be the only cost-effective source of ethanol fuel in the nation – placed a tariff of 50 cents per gallon on imported ethanol. (Today, this tariff still exists and consists of 2,5% + 54 cents.) That same year, it became possible for prospective ethanol producers to apply for government-guaranteed loans for up to 90 percent of construction costs. The government also decided to put significant sums into research and development to further the sector.15

Between 1979 and 1986, domestic production of ethanol rose dramatically in the U.S., from a mere 20 million U.S. liquid gallons (over 75 million liters) to 750 million gallons (around 2,84 billion liters). In 1990, small-scale producers received an additional tax credit of 10 cents per gallon. By 2004, the national ethanol production had grown even more and was now reaching 3,6 billion gallons.16

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was another important step in corn ethanol history. It mandated an annual consumption of 7,5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012. Two years later, the mandate was increased to 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol by 2015.

In 2009, the U.S. produced 10,6 billion gallons of ethanol fuel and a vast majority of this fuel was corn based. Together, the U.S. and Brazil stood for nearly 90% of all the ethanol fuel produced that year. However, Brazil does not rely on corn for ethanol production; their crop of choice is sugarcane.

Brazil ethanol history

Brazil is one of the main producers of ethanol fuel and Brazil ethanol history goes back a long way. Sugarcane has been cultivated in the country since 1532 and was exported to Europe by Portuguese settlers17. In the late 1920s the automobile was introduced to Brazil18 and it became profitable to turn sugarcane into ethanol fuel. World War II had a huge impact on Brazil ethanol history since German submarine attacks made it difficult to transport oil across the oceans. In 1943, it became mandatory for car fuel to contain at least 50% enthanol.19 After the war, cheap and readily transported oil prevailed and ethanol fuel was normally only produced when there was an unusual surplus of sugar. 20

During the first oil crisis of the 1970s, Brazil once again saw the value of domestically produced fuel and the government started promoting home-grown ethanol through the Programa Nacional do Álcool, a nation-wide program launched in 197521. Since 1976, blend gasoline with ethanol fuel has been mandatory in Brazil, with the required percentage varying from 10% to 25%.22 Today, the mandatory percentage is set based on the results of the sugarcane harvest.23

The first modern commercial enthanol-only powered car, the Fiat 147, was launched on the Brazilian market in July 1979.24

Ethanol car history

Here you will find some of the most important steps in ethanol car history, with special focus on United States ethanol car history.




U.S. inventor Samuel Morey, chiefly known for creating the world's first internal combustion engine, develops an engine that runs on ethanol and turpentine.


German inventor Nicholas Otto uses ethanol as fuel in one of this engines.


In the U.S., a special tax is placed on industrial alcohol by the Union Congress to help pay for the Civil War. The tax is $2 per gallon and this makes ethanol fall out of favor as a fuel in the U.S. Prior to 1962, ethanol was commonly used in lamps.


Henry Fod builds his first automobile (The Quadricycle), and the engine is designed to run on pure ethanol. This is naturally a very important step in ethanol car industry.


The 1862 tax on industrial alcohol is repealed by Congress. Ethanol is now once again a fuel of interest in the United States.


The first Ford Model T leaves the factory. The engine is a flexible hybrid engine capable of using ethanol, gasoline or kerosene. This car is produced until 1927.


During the prohibition era in the United States, it is illegal to sell, manufacture and transport alcohol. This makes it impractical to use ethanol cars. Ethanol fuel sellers are accused of being allied with moonshiners, and ethanol could only be sold when mixed with gasoline.


World War I is over and gasoline, not ethanol, become the most popular fuel in the United States as well as in many other parts of the world. However, Standard Oil starts adding ethanol to gasoline to get the octane number up and reduce engine knocking.

In Brazil, automobiles can be seen on the streets for the first time in history. Sugarcane from Brazil's huge sugarcane plantations is used to produce ethanol fuel for them.


Driving your car on gashohol becomes popular in the U.S. Midwest. Over 2 000 stations sell gasohol, which is gasoline with an ethanol content of 6-12%.


World War II increases the demand for fuel, but most of the increased demand for ethanol is actually not due to driving ethanol cars but for non-fuel wartime uses.

In Brazil, a war time law was enacted in 1943 that made it mandatory for car fuel to be comprised of at least 50% ethanol.


World War II ends in 1945 and gasoline becomes cheap and easily accessible. This reduces the interest in ethanol cars. From a U.S. and European perspective, the following decades are not a very productive part of ethanol car history. However, in other parts of the world, such as Brazil, the interest in ethanol car continues.


Oil embargoes and higher oil prices once again makes the ethanol car more interesting. Also, several nations worried about their increased dependance on imported oil.


In the United States, the Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1974 in enacted. This leads to increased research regarding how to best turn organic materials into fuel. Yet another important step in ethanol car history has been taken.


Brazil launches its Programa Nacional do Álcool, a nation-wide program intended to promote ethanol fuel on the domestic market.


Once again, blending gasoline with ethanol becomes mandatory in Brazil. (Over time, the required minimum percentage has varied from 10% to 25% since 1976.)


As an effect of the oil crises, the Brazilian government is considering imposing a ration on gasoline.

Mario Garnero, President of the National Association of Automotive Vehicle Manufacturers, convinces the four major automobile producers in the country – Ford, Volkswagen, General Motors and Fiat – to establish the dauntless goal of producing 1 million ethanol cars. This is equal to the entire automobile production of 1978.

Fiat 147, the first modern car running on ethanol only, is launched on the Brazilian market that same year. Three years later, 90% of Brazil's new automobiles are ethanol cars. Garnero is dubbed “The Father of the Ethanol Car” for his role in ethanol car history.


The Amoco Oil Company starts marketing alcohol-blended fuels. They are soon to be followed by others, such as Texaco, Beacon, Ashland and Chevron.


The U.S. Congress places a tariff on foreign-produced ethanol to stop countries such as Brazil from selling inexpensive ethanol to the U.S.


This is an important year in U.S. ethanol car history, because this is when the Energy Policy Act of 1992 is enacted. The Act makes it mandatory for certain car fleets to start buying vehicles capable of running on alternative fuels. The Act defines ethanol blends with at least 85% ethanol as alternative fuel. The Act also gives tax deductions to those who purchase a vehicle capable of running on alternative fuel, or convert an old vehicle for the same purpose.

E85 ethanol history

E85 is a fuel made from a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% unleaded gasoline. E85 was created for flexible fuel vehicles, or vehicles that can run on any blend of ethanol up to 85%. In the United States, the ethanol used in E85 is normally derived from corn.

Important steps in E85 ethanol history


The Energy Policy Act of 1992 is enacted in the United States. The Act defines ethanol blends with at least 85% ethanol as alternative fuel. Tax deductions are given to promote the sales of vehicles capable of running on alternative fuel, and the conversion of old vehicles into such vehicles.


In this period, three million U.S. cars and light trucks capable of running on E85 are produced. Unfortunately, it is still very hard to find gas stations in the U.S. that sells E85.


On average, E85 is now 45 cent (or 30-75 cent wholesale) cheaper than gasoline in the U.S. Between January and April, the price drops from $1.75 per gallon to $1.23, a decrease by almost 30%.


Over 4 million flexible-fuel vehicles now exist in the United States. They can run on gasoline as well as on E85. Roughly 400 gas stations sell E85 and most of them are located in the Midwest, where a lot of corn is grown. The Midwest has always been an important region in the E85 ethanol history.


The U.S. Department of Energy classifies E85 as an alternative fuel.


2Morais PB, Rosa CA, Linardi VR, Carazza F, Nonato EA (1996). "Production of fuel alcohol by Saccharomyces strains from tropical habitats". Biotechnology Letters 18: 1351. doi:10.1007/BF00129969.

5^ Sarton, George (1975). Introduction to the history of science. R. E. Krieger Pub. Co.. p. 145.

6^Holmyard, Eric John (1990). Alchemy. Courier Dover Publications. p. 53.

7^ Alcohol in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition

8^ Alcohol in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition

9Couper AS (1858). "On a new chemical theory" (online reprint). Philosophical magazine 16 (104–16). Retrieved 2007-09-03.

10Morais PB, Rosa CA, Linardi VR, Carazza F, Nonato EA (1996). "Production of fuel alcohol by Saccharomyces strains from tropical habitats". Biotechnology Letters 18: 1351. doi:10.1007/BF00129969

11Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Statistics Division (2009). "Maize, rice and wheat : area harvested, production quantity, yield".

13Ethanol Market Penetration". Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center, US DOE. Retrieved 2006-06-25.

15“Children of the Corn” Freddoso, David. National Review Online. May 6, 2008. Retrieved 2011-01-01.

16Children of the Corn” Freddoso, David. National Review Online. May 6, 2008. Retrieved 2011-01-01.

19^ William Kovarik (2008). "Ethanol's first century". Radford University. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 

20^ William Kovarik (2008). "Ethanol's first century". Radford University. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 

21^ Milton Briquet Bastos (2007-06-20). "Brazil’s Ethanol Program – An Insider's View". Energy Tribune. Retrieved 2008-08-14.

22^ Julieta Andrea Puerto Rico (2008-05-08). "Programa de Biocombustíveis no Brasil e na Colômbia: uma análise da implantação, resultados e perspectivas" (in Portuguese). Universidade de São Paulo.   Ph.D. Dissertation Thesis, pp. 81–82. Retrieved 2008-10-05.

24Revista Veja (1979-06-13). "O petróleo da cana" (in Portuguese). Editora Abril. Retrieved 2008-11-29.

Sources for ethanol car history time-line:

Energy Information Administration, “Policies to Promote Non-hydro Renewable Energy in the United States and Selected Countries”. Report Release: February 2005.

Energy Information Administration, “Renewable Energy Annual 1995”. Report Release: December 1995.

Siegel, Robert (2007-02-15). "Ethanol, Once Bypassed, Now Surging Ahead". NPR. Retrieved 2007-09-22.

Energy Kids, U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Biofuels Basics”. Retrieved 2011-01-02.

Energy Kids, U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Ethanol”. Last revised: June 2008. Retrieved 2011-01-02.

Siegel, Robert (2007-02-15). "Ethanol, Once Bypassed, Now Surging Ahead". NPR. Retrieved 2007-09-22.

"USGA: Em 1927, o Primeiro Grande Empreendimento Brasileiro em Álcool Combustível" (in Portuguese). Onde Vamos Boletim Enfoque. June 2000. Archived from the original on March 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-09.

William Kovarik (2008). "Ethanol's first century". Radford University. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 

Revista Veja (1979-06-13). "O petróleo da cana" (in Portuguese). Editora Abril. Retrieved 2008-11-29.

Julieta Andrea Puerto Rico (2008-05-08). "Programa de Biocombustíveis no Brasil e na Colômbia: uma análise da implantação, resultados e perspectivas" (in Portuguese). Universidade de São Paulo.   Ph.D. Dissertation Thesis, pp. 81–82. Retrieved 2008-10-05.

Mercado Magazine. “Global Vision Personality 2008”. ADVB, Sao Paulo, 2008.

Garnero, Mario. “Brazil in the world: views on Brazil’s Role in the Global Market.” São Paulo : Aduaneiras, 2008, p. 143

Copyrigt 2010-11