In 1925, when auto pioneer Henry Ford hailed biofuels as the “fuel of the future” he was echoing a sentiment that was shared widely within the automotive industry. “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything,” he had predicted. “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’s strong support for crop-based ethyl alcohol fuel may have stemmed from his love for the American farms. In 1925, American farms that were close to Ford’s heart were facing an acute financial crisis. Creating new markets for farm products was seen as a potential solution to help these farms stay afloat. Many believed Ford’s financial and political backing could revive the fortunes of these farms and boost scientific research in agriculture. Encouraged by Ford’s conviction, American farmers, too, embraced the idea of finding new markets for their produce.

Believing in the potential of ethanol to become the most commonly used fuel source, Ford designed his Model T to run on both ethanol and petroleum. In fact, he publicly announced that ethanol was his top choice of fuel for all his cars. His Model T revolutionized the way Americans traveled and propelled the Ford Motor Company to become the largest auto manufacturer. Interestingly, his first experimental car the Ford Quadricycle, which he designed in 1896, also had an ethanol-powered engine.

Inspired by ethanol experiments in Germany

Many believe Ford was inspired by the German alcohol fuel program that had contributed immensely to rural prosperity. In 1860, German inventor Nicholas August Otto used ethyl alcohol as fuel. He designed a carburetor that heated alcohol to vaporize the engine. By 1880s, Otto had developed the four-stroke Otto-cycle engine, which was adaptable to a variety of fuels such as benzene and alcohol. Another German inventor Rudolf Diesel also found that fuel from castor, peanut and palm oils worked very well.

Fascinated by these German automotive innovations, Ford subsequently supported the lifting of the U.S. tax on industrial uses of ethanol. He was so convinced that the U.S. would not want to import oil to produce gasoline that he scouted Florida in hopes of purchasing tracts of land to produce sugarcane. When World War I threatened a massive gasoline shortage, Ford announced that the new Fordson tractor would be designed to burn alcohol as well as gasoline to ensure an unlimited supply of fuel.

Describing the benefits of producing crop-based fuel, Ford said ethanol would:

  • Be far cheaper than gasoline, kerosene and petroleum
  • Boost car performance with high octane ratings
  • Clean the car engine and promote longer engine life
  • Be environmentally friendly
  • Be a more renewable energy source
  • Be more accessible to Americans

Biofuels in the current world order

Due to the oil crises since the 1970s, there has been a renewed interest in biofuels. Proponents believe biofuels can boost rural development, satisfy energy demands with minimal environmental impact and curb the influence of the petroleum industry. Encouraged by these benefits, the U.S. Department of Energy is investing on technologies to grow crops such as sorghum as biofuel.

At Novozymes, we are excited by the opportunities that exist in this rapidly growing industry. As the world leader in bioinnovation, we produce enzymes that optimize the conversion of grains such as corn, wheat, barley and other raw materials into ethanol. Unrivaled in their performance and ease of use, our enzymes enable higher yields, faster throughput, and lower processing costs. By working closely with our partners, we are bringing exciting new applications to further advance sustainable biofuels, or as Ford liked to call them the “fuel of the future”.

Shubhomita Bose

As a Creative Specialist, I work closely with global marketing teams to create customer-centric communication for our audiences across industries and regions. Other than work, I enjoy fiction, world cinema and music.

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