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Ford’s Ethanol and Rockefeller’s Gasoline : Who Won, Who Lost, and Why?

July 15, 2012

By Pavan Sukhdev

Based on a the available literature, biographical works, and scholarly articles accessible through the Yale library database, there is no verifiable evidence that J.D. Rockefeller dissuaded, coerced, or successfully influenced either Henry Ford of the Federal Government to abandon the widespread use of alcohol-based ethanol as a liquid transportation fuel. There are many conspiracy theories regarding such claims, however the facts simply bare a different conclusion. Specifically, there are several facts regarding J.D. Rockefeller and the viability of ethanol fuel throughout the first half of the 20th Century that are too poignant to overlook:

  • Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust was broken in 1911, only 3 years after mass production of Ford’s ethanol capable Model T commenced, and 14 years after Rockefeller himself retired from operating the Trust. The dismantling of Trust predated the mass build-out of American gasoline stations throughout the country by approximately 10 years, meaning that the influence of Rockefeller over this build-out was significantly constrained.[1]
  • In 1911, at the height of Standard Oil’s market power, the most popular liquid fuel was kerosene, meaning that the threat of an ethanol dominated economy was seemingly already precluded.[2]
  • Until the mid-1920’s the value of petroleum in relation to vehicle operation was for lubrication purposes – the first generation of American vehicles were extremely inefficient and burned far more oil than they consumed fuel. This fact runs counter to the assertion the Rockefeller felt threatened by ethanol fuel, which has no value as a lubricant.[3]
  • During World War I (1914-early 1919) the use of ethanol in the United States expanded significantly to 50-60 million gallons per year.[4] During this time it was discovered that the most cost effective value of ethanol was not as a stand-alone fuel, but as an octane boosting additive to gasoline.[5]
  • Rockefeller was a strong supporter of Prohibition, but mainly because of his moral imperatives. There is no verifiable evidence that he favored the temperance movement in order to eliminate alcohol fuel completion.[6]
  • Henry Ford was a supporter of Prohibition, mainly because of how he believed excessive alcohol consumption negatively impacted the industrial workforce. This is no indication that Ford favored ethanol production over societal norm building.[7]
  • During Prohibition (1919-1933) the production of ethanol was seriously curtailed, leading to its replacement as an octane booster for gasoline. Although after Prohibition ended the use production of ethanol soared to all the way through the conclusion of WWII.[8]

Henry Ford and Ethanol

Henry Ford was raised as a rural farmer and maintained his deep links to the American farmer throughout his life. Because most rural farmers had alcohol stills on their property, and since the viability of vegetable-based alcohol fuel was realized in the mid-19th century, Ford’s vehicle designs centered on the use of alcohol as a fuel.[9] His first combustion engine, the 1896 quadricycle, ran exclusively on alcohol-based ethanol; and the early versions of the famous Model T ran on either ethanol or gasoline, utilizing a knob on the dashboard that allowed the driver to toggle the carburetor setting, depending on the predominate fuel mix within the tank.[10]

However, by 1915 Ford began to fall out of favor with alcohol fuels, mainly because of price considerations. At the time, the fermentation process of ethanol yielded an efficiency of only 16% usable fuel, with the remainder being waste product and water. As production of automobiles continued to surge, Ford’s view of ethanol began to diminish accordingly. Moreover, there were technical challenges inherent to the Model T that lessened the viability of ethanol fuel – namely, these vehicles ran extremely hot, which significantly diminished the usable energy content of ethanol combusted within the engine.[11]

"[T]he fuel of the future" which “is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust -- almost anything. 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."[12]

Henry Ford, 1925

Ultimately, though, Ford never fully abandoned his belief that sustainable fuel sources would one day be viable. As the above quote indicates, Ford continued to promote the alcohol fuel even while its viability was being sapped by the temperance movement. This quote, however, is more indicative of Ford’s respect for scientific research and progressive thinking than it is for his agenda to use ethanol fuel at the time.[13]

 


[1] John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, The Gas Station in America, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

[2] John Cunningham Wood and  Michael C. Wood, Henry Ford: critical evaluations in business and management, Routledge, 2003

[3] Id.

[4] http://www.gpreinc.com/Ethanol-Timeline

[5] http://www.fuel-testers.com/ethanol_fuel_history.html

[6] Ron Chernow, Titan: the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr, Random House, Inc., 1998

[7] http://www.anzasa.arts.usyd.edu.au/ahas/prohibition_overview.html

[8] http://www.agweb.okstate.edu/fourh/aitc/lessons/upper/biofuel3.pdf

[9] J. C. Jones, ‘Bioalcohol fuel’, Chemical and Engineering News, 17 July 2006, p. 4

[10] James Brough, The Ford Dynasty: An American Story

[11] Reynold M. Wik, Henry Ford and Grass-roots America, The University of Michigan Press, 1973

[12] “Ford Predicts Fuel from Vegetation," New York Times, 20 September 1925, 24.

[13] See generally William Shurtleff, Henry Ford and his Researchers - History of their Work with Soybeans, Soyfoods and Chemurgy (1928-2011), SoyInfo Center, 2011

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