Back To The Future

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There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years.” – Henry Ford

As I was browsing the internet, I came across a piece on Henry Ford that provides some insight a historical element that contributed to our climate crisis. If Henry Ford was able to advance his ideas we maybe could have reduced the level of crisis we have today. Not surprising, it was the interest of oil that got us into this crisis and keeps us there today. Before the big oil industry took over our lives, there was thought and effort to avoid toxic’s in our air and soil and to support America’s family farms. Here’s an abbreviated story.

In 1925 Henry Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethyl alcohol was “the fuel of the future.” At that time 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 sumac (tree or bush of the cashew family) out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything,” Ford 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.”

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.

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.

Ethanol has been known as a fuel for many decades. In fact, when Henry Ford designed the Model T, it was his expectation that ethanol, made from renewable biological materials, and 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 fields, 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 America’s vast agricultural resources (for fuel production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests. One noteworthy claim put forth by petroleum companies was that the U.S. government’s plans “robbed taxpayers– to make farmers rich.”

Gasoline also offered many disadvantages as an automotive resource. The “new” fuel had a lower octane rating than ethanol, was much more toxic, 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 many reasons including the large investments made by the oil and auto industries in physical capital, human skills and technology.

Today across the U.S. and the world every day people are fighting against the same industries that kept Henry Ford form moving his sensible, clean and economical ideas forward. It’s time to go back and move to innovation and build an economy that provides for our needs while protecting our planet and workers.