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The Secret History of Lead | The Nation

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The Secret History of Lead

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The story of TEL's rise, then, is very much the story of the oil companies' and lead interests' war against ethanol as an octane-boosting additive that could be mixed with gasoline or, in their worst nightmare, burned straight as a replacement for gasoline. For more than a hundred years, Big Oil has reckoned ethanol to be fundamentally inimical to its interest, and, viewing its interest narrowly, Big Oil might not be wrong. By contrast, GM's subsequent antipathy to alcohol was a profit-motivated attitude adjustment. Alcohol initially held much fascination for the company, for good reason. Ethanol is always plentiful and easy to make, with a long history in America, not just as a fuel additive but as a pure fuel. The first prototype internal-combustion engine in 1826 used alcohol and turpentine. Prior to the Civil War alcohol was the most widely used illuminating fuel in the country. Indeed, alcohol powered the first engine by the German inventor Nicholas August Otto, father of the four-stroke internal-combustion engines powering our cars today. More important, by the time of Kettering's antiknock inquiry, alcohol was a proven automotive fuel.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Follow-ups:
"Amplification," June 19, 2000 and letters exchanges: "Lead--Balloons and Bouquets," May 15, and "Lead-Letter Office," July 3, 2000.

About the Author

Jamie Lincoln Kitman
Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, won an investigative reporting award from...

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As the automobile era picked up speed, scientific journals were filled with references to alcohol. Tests in 1906 by the Department of Agriculture underscored its power and economy benefits. In 1907 and 1908 the US Geological Survey and the Navy performed 2,000 tests on alcohol and gasoline engines in Norfolk, Virginia, and St. Louis, concluding that higher engine compression could be achieved with alcohol than with gasoline. They noted a complete absence of smoke and disagreeable odors.

Despite many attempts by Big Oil to stifle its home-grown competitor (one time-honored gambit: lobbying legislators to pass punitive taxation thwarting alcohol's economic viability), power alcohol would number among its adherents several highly regarded inventors and scientists, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Henry Ford built his very first car to run on what he called farm alcohol. As late as 1925, after the advent of TEL, the high priest of American industry would predict in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor that ethanol--"fuel from vegetation"--would be the "fuel of the future." Four years later, early examples of his Model A car would be equipped with a dashboard knob to adjust its carburetor to run on gasoline or alcohol.

Ethanol made a lot of sense to a practical Ohio farm boy like Kettering. It was renewable, made from surplus crops and crop waste, and nontoxic. It delivered higher octane than gasoline (though it contained less power per gallon), and it burned more cleanly. By 1920, as Kettering was aware, a US Naval Committee had concluded that alcohol-gasoline blends "withstand high compression without producing knock."

Higher compression was, after all, what the GM men were after. In February 1920, shortly after joining General Motors' employ, Thomas Midgley filed a patent application for a blend of alcohol and cracked (olefin) gasoline, as an antiknock fuel. Later that month K.W. Zimmerschied of GM's New York headquarters wrote Kettering, observing that foreign use of alcohol fuel "is getting more serious every day in connection with export cars, and anything we can do toward building our carburetors so they can be easily adapted to alcohol will be appreciated by all." Kettering assured him that adaptation for alcohol fuel "is a thing which is very readily taken care of" by exchanging metal carburetor floats for lacquered cork ones. GM was concerned (albeit temporarily) about an imminent disruption in oil supply, and alcohol-powered cars could keep its factories open. An internal GM report that year stated ominously, "This year will see the maximum production of petroleum that this country will ever know."

Ethanol on the March

In October 1921, less than two months before he hatched leaded gasoline, Thomas Midgley drove a high-compression-engined car from Dayton to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis, using a gasoline-ethanol blended fuel containing 30 percent alcohol. "Alcohol," he told the assembled engineers, "has tremendous advantages and minor disadvantages." The benefits included "clean burning and freedom from any carbon deposit...[and] tremendously high compression under which alcohol will operate without knocking.... Because of the possible high compression, the available horsepower is much greater with alcohol than with gasoline."

After four years' study, GM researchers had proved it: Ethanol was the additive of choice. Their estimation would be confirmed by others. In the thirties, after leaded gasoline was introduced to the United States but before it dominated in Europe, two successful English brands of gas--Cleveland Discoll and Kool Motor--contained 30 percent and 16 percent alcohol, respectively. As it happened, Cleveland Discoll was part-owned by Ethyl's half-owner, Standard Oil of New Jersey (Kool Motor was owned by the US oil company Cities Service, today Citgo). While their US colleagues were slandering alcohol fuels before Congressional committees in the thirties, Standard Oil's men in England would claim, in advertising pamphlets, that ethanol-laced, lead-free petrol offered "the most perfect motor fuel the world has ever known," providing "extra power, extra economy, and extra efficiency."

For a change, the oil companies spoke the truth. Today, in the postlead era, ethanol is routinely blended into gasoline to raise octane and as an emissions-reducing oxygenate. Race cars often run on pure ethanol. DaimlerChrysler and Ford earn credits allowing them to sell additional gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles by engineering so-called flex-vehicles that will run on clean-burning E85, an 85 percent ethanol/gasoline blend. GM helped underwrite the 1999 Ethanol Vehicle Challenge, which saw college engineering students easily converting standard GM pickup trucks to run on E85, producing hundreds of bonus horsepower. Ethanol's technical difficulties have been surmounted and its cost--as an octane-boosting additive rather than a pure fuel--is competitive with the industry's preferred octane-boosting oxygenate, MTBE, a petroleum-derived suspected carcinogen with an affinity for groundwater that was recently outlawed in California. With MTBE's fall from grace, many refiners--including Getty, which took out a full-page ad in the New York Times congratulating itself for doing so--returned to ethanol long after it was first developed as a clean-burning octane booster.

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